Be he pulling pranks on teammates or strutting his stuff on the field, and whether he's tearing up opponents or shutting them down, Stuart Holden just wants to have fun.
After he slammed home a penalty kick that earned Houston a 3-2 win over Chicago at Robertson Stadium in early August, he strutted toward the fans behind the goal, arms outstretched, his head jerking back and forth as would that of a chicken searching for kernels scattered on the ground.
Bizarre behavior? Not at all, for the Chicago game was "Stuart Holden Bobblehead Night," at which fans received a diminutive version of the blond midfielder, his arms spread wide and the head fully equipped to do what bobbleheads, and the player himself, occasionally do.
"He likes to talk a lot and be the jokester, and that's fine with me, because I'm the quiet guy," says forward Brian Ching, a teammate on the Dynamo and the U.S. national team who sometimes must fend off his energetic roommate. "He's always the one jumping out of corners trying to scare me, or playing jokes. He's a great teammate in that sense, he makes you laugh, he keeps things light. He enjoys the game and life."
In this, the 24th year of his life, Holden is blossoming into one of the brightest lights in MLS and the national team pool. He's attained some remarkable heights for a young player representing club and country, and rebounded from heartbreak and adversity on and off the field. Two-thirds of the way through the season, he and Ching were vying for the team lead in goals, Houston topped the Western Conference, and he'd stamped himself as a contender for a spot on the U.S. 2010 World Cup team.
"I grew up a Man United fan watching the likes of David Beckham and Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs and [Paul] Scholes," says Holden, who in his fourth pro season has already played for two MLS championship teams and in the Olympic Games. "I would have emulated my game after any of those guys.
"Cantona used to strut around the field a little bit, but then in the flash of an eye could turn around and chip the keeper. You always want a player who has the ability and the wherewithal to take the team on his shoulders and step it up. That's something I've always admired and I think it's something you can't really teach, it's just part of you."
Fun he may be, but he's dead serious about doing his job. Maybe it's that Scottish heritage and what he's had to endure.
"I was born there and have that kind of upbringing," says the native of Aberdeen whose family moved to Houston when he was 10. "It's a real working mentality, that there will always be people out there who want your job and want your position. You have to always do the little things to stay ahead of that competition."
Since joining the Dynamo in 2006 after leaving English club Sunderland, to which he'd moved after two collegiate seasons at Clemson, he's done plenty of things great and small to advance his career and reputation.
After starting just three regular-season games as a rookie, he played in MLS Cup 2006 and converted the second of the penalty kicks by which Houston defeated New England.
"He had that confidence," says Ching, who nailed the decisive penalty after heading an equalizer late in overtime. "I don't think a lot of teams would have put a young guy in a situation like that in the final. It's a tribute to him that he stepped up and buried it. That speaks volumes about his character."
He increased his playing time the following season as Houston retained its MLS title, and as the bearer of dual (USA/UK) citizenship, drew the notice of U-23 national team coach Peter Nowak.
Last year, he started all three U.S. games at the Olympics and scored the only goal of a 1-0 defeat of Japan in the opener. Watching from the stands when he scored in Tianjin were his parents, Brian and Moira, and the stories they told later about being struck dumb with disbelief for a few seconds after ball hit net would soon cast a wistful poignancy over Holden's life.
A few months later, Houston shockingly lost to eighth-seed New York in the playoffs. Last February came a greater shock, a devastating personal loss: his father died after a six-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Doctors had diagnosed the disease during Stuart's senior year in high school.
"He was my best friend," Holden said to the Houston Chronicle last Fathers' Day after the family held a remembrance. "It's such a cliché, but if I could be half the man he was, I will have lived a good life. He always put his family first no matter what."
The surviving members of his immediate family have been on the road a lot this season keeping up with Holden when he's not playing in Houston. He scored on his national team debut in the Gold Cup, added a second goal later in the tournament, set up both goals in a 2-0 semifinal win over Honduras, then played in the All-Star Game three days after the Gold Cup final.
"My mom and my sister flew up to New York for the U.S.-Mexico game," says Holden. "They flew home for a day, and then they flew out the next day [to Salt Lake City] with my brother for the All-Star Game. They are my biggest supporters and they're the people who mean the most to me, so having them be a part of everything makes it extra-special."
Scoring on your senior international debut is rather special, but his second U.S. goal smacked of stardom: Trailing Haiti, 2-1, in stoppage time of its last group game, the U.S. pressed forward, and when a deflected ball rolled to him outside the penalty area, he kept it simple. He shot.
"The chance fell to me in the last minute, and at that point you just want to strike it as well as you can and keep it on target so if it doesn't go in it gives someone else a chance," said Holden, whose right-footed blast soared into the top corner. "Luckily enough, I hit it well enough that it went in the back of the net. It was a great feeling, but I was still hoping that we would have a couple extra minutes to try and get one more goal."
That last sentence succinctly summarizes a spirit and work ethic appreciated by his teammates, Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, and national team coach Bob Bradley. He's a flair player, blessed with great feet and incisive vision, yet more than capable of tracking back and winning a tackle when the need arises. Bradley rewarded his Gold Cup performances by calling him up for the Aug. 12 qualifier against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
"He's not soft," says Kinnear. "He gets involved in tackles, he doesn't shy away, he closes people down. You look at his all-around game, and I think it's impressive in all areas, and that's on both sides of the ball. And tactically, he's very aware of timing and situations."
In addition to scoring two goals in the Gold Cup, Holden displayed his knack and acumen at setting up chances both on set pieces and during the run of play. Catalysts Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey didn't play in the Gold Cup, so much of the USA's attacking impetus came through Holden.
An outswinging corner kick in the semifinal against Honduras dropped for defender Clarence Goodson, who headed it into the net with just seconds left in the first half. When an entry pass reached the feet of Ching in the last minute of regulation, Holden moved up into space on the flank but wisely stayed onside until Ching played a back-heel behind his marker. Holden stepped to the ball and first-timed a square pass that Kenny Cooper redirected into the net for the clinching goal.
His prowess at setting up goals as well as scoring them predates his official debut for the USA. He played for the U.S. under-20s at the 2004 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, though he had yet to complete the citizenship process. He scored a goal and set one up for Chad Barrett in a 2-2 tie with Denmark, and after the Milk Cup trained for two weeks with Everton.
He returned to Clemson for his sophomore season, during which he scored three goals and registered three assists before deciding to turn pro. After trials with Everton and Sunderland, he signed with the latter in March 2005, but after playing two reserve games suffered a fractured eye socket when attacked by a fan of Sunderland's bitter northeast rival, Newcastle.
By the time he recovered, Sunderland had earned promotion and his short-term contract had expired. He went to Leicester City and promptly broke his ankle. That spurred a return to America to get in touch with MLS and sort out the U.S. citizenship process, unaware that his move was about to converge with another.
"I never heard of Stuart Holden until we moved to Houston," says Kinnear, who moved with the team from San Jose during the winter of 2005-06. "An agent, Barry McLain, told me there was a player in Houston who might be worth looking at and he told me to talk to Thomas Rongen." Rongen had brought Holden to Northern Ireland with the U-20s prior to his resignation the following October to take the Chivas USA head coaching job.
"This is at the [MLS Player] Combine, and it was funny, because Thomas Rongen was like 30 feet away. I walked over to Thomas and told him, 'I'm going to throw out a name and you tell me what you think.' I said, 'Stuart Holden,' and he kind of started laughing and said, 'Give the kid a look; he's got something.'"
After a trial and a solid preseason, Houston signed him as a free agent. In his first three MLS seasons, he played most of the time out wide in relief of either Brian Mullan or Brad Davis and scored nine goals and nine assists while starting only 31 of his 62 matches. After Dwayne De Rosario left in a trade with Toronto, Kinnear told Holden - and the team - that replacing DeRo would be a collective effort.
"The strength of our team has been in midfield, so it's taken him a while," says Kinnear of Holden earning a regular starting spot. "For anybody to compare Stuart to Dwayne, it would be totally unfair, because they are two totally different players who play the position differently. All we said to Stuart in preseason was, 'Play it well, work hard, and help us win, and you're doing your job. You're not here to replace anybody, you're here to keep the team being successful.'"
Judging by the stats generated by Holden for Houston and the USA, he's been doing just that. "That's a big reason for a lot of his success," says Ching. "He doesn't shy away from big situations and pressure situations.
"He's got a great work ethic, a team mentality, and a desire to win."
(This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)