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Retiring Stuart Holden remembered as consummate teammate, talent, friend

Holden Donovan US National Team
Stuart Holden. left, and Landon Donovan celebrate at the 2010 World Cup.

CARSON, Calif. -- As the news of Stuart Holden's retirement spread across the American soccer-sphere on Wednesday, there were plenty of people ready to wish the former Bolton, Houston Dynamo and U.S. national team midfielder well.

There was also lots of reminiscing about the player he was and could have been had a laundry list of injuries -- including three broken legs and four ACL tears over the last five years alone -- not derailed his ascendant career.

But mostly, those who played alongside him remember Holden as the consummate teammate.

"For the national team, Stuart played a huge role in what we were about in terms of what he gave to the group -- both when he played and when he didn't play," U.S. captain Michael Bradley, who suited up with Holden at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, told ESPN moments after the official word came down. "He was an incredible teammate and a competitor in every way."

Bradley has gotten to know Holden well over the past decade. Two years before reaching the pinnacle of their sport together in South Africa, they were teammates at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The pair were reunited as recently as last month, when Holden, 30, briefly trained with the U.S. team here as a non-roster invitee of coach Jurgen Klinsmann before deciding his body wasn't up for yet another comeback.

Michael Bradley US vs Trinidad and Tobago
U.S. captain Michael Bradley came through the ranks with Holden and remembers him as the consummate teammate.

Still, Bradley said that Holden looked sharp in the sessions he participated in -- "he was exactly what everyone would remember," he said -- even though it was also clear that Holden was ready to start the next chapter of his life.

"Being able to train with the group I think gave him a little bit of closure in some ways," Bradley said of Holden, whose wife gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter, on Monday. "He's at a really good place. I know how excited he is to be a dad."

Current Houston coach Owen Coyle was the manager of then-English Premier League side Bolton when Holden left the Dynamo for England in early 2010. His initial reaction when Holden told him he was mulling retirement was disappointment.

"I had a chat with him just before Christmas and he let me know he was considering it," Coyle told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "For me it's disappointing because of the player he was, the ability he had and what a young man he is."

And also because of what might have been. In his first full season with Bolton, in 2010-11, Holden's stock was going though the roof until a tackle by then-Manchester United defender Jonny Evans stopped his upward trajectory cold.

Injuries derailed Holden's career, but former coaches said he was one of the best midfielders in England in his prime.

"That season he was as good a midfielder as there was in the English Premier League," Coyle said, an opinion shared by Britain's Guardian newspaper. "Guys like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were in their prime, and he stood toe-to-toe with them and all the top foreign players. We were in the top five or top six of the league most of the season and the biggest factor in that was Stuart Holden.

"For me he was the complete midfielder," Coyle continued. "His fitness levels were so high. He was so full of energy. He could pass the ball. He could tackle. He could score. I can't speak highly enough of him. He summed up everything a coach could ever want in a footballer."

Off the field, Holden might have had even more to offer. Always armed with a smile and a joke, he was the ultimate presence in the locker room, said Stoke City's Geoff Cameron, who was Holden's teammate in Houston and, later, his roommate with the national team.

Cameron said Holden's success in England motivated him to follow in his footsteps.

"Stu is one of my best friends in football," Cameron said from Germany, where he's undergoing treatment for an ankle injury. "He's a loving, caring guy. You know he will be there to tell you things you need to hear, or pick you up when you're down.

"And if you ever need to bring up the morale of a team you bring Stu in, because he changes the whole dynamic of a changing room for the better."

Cameron and Bradley both declined to speculate on how far Holden could've gone if not for the injuries. But Coyle offered his thoughts before being asked.

"If he hadn't picked up that injury [against Manchester United], there's no doubt one of the top six clubs in England would've come and snapped him up," Coyle said. "For me, that's how good he was. He was getting to such a level that he could've played in any of those teams."

Instead, Holden's last competitive game was with Bolton's reserves in March of 2014, when he got hurt yet again. To hear Bradley tell it, training with the U.S. last month allowed Holden to go on his own terms.

"I think his words to me one day were, 'Even if this is it for me, it's exactly what I needed, because I didn't want my last memories of playing to be walking off a rainy reserve field in Bolton with a torn ACL.'"

As for his post-playing days, Holden's career as an entrepreneur and television analyst is already well underway.

"This isn't the last we've seen of Stuart Holden, that's for sure," Cameron said. It's definitely a big loss for the U.S. national team and U.S. fans. But you are still going to see his face everywhere."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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