By Ridge Mahoney
The cheering and clapping started as he approached the fourth official, grew in volume as he stood at midfield awaiting the referee’s signal, and reverberated throughout Qualcomm Stadium as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann gave him a final few words of encouragement, patted him on the shoulders and sent him onto the field.
Stuart Holden was back. And all seemed right with the world. He and Mix Diskerud replaced starters Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres in central midfield, and a 1-0 halftime lead ballooned to 6-0 as Guatemala succumbed to its own fatigue, and the precision of quicker and slicker opponents.
Holden delivered a superb cross from the right wing that Landon Donovan slammed into the net for the fourth U.S. goal, contributed a vital touch in the lead-up to Chris Wondolowski’s scoring of the fifth, and sent a ball wide left that Brek Shea chased down and centered forAlejandro Bedoya to bang home the sixth. You could say he influenced the game.
In his longest U.S. appearance since 2010, Holden – who had twice played a few minutes for Klinsmann as a sub this year – finally seemed free of the severe injuries and long layoffs that had plagued him the past four years. The fans reveled in his success, as did he. The beaming smile he displayed as he left the field waving to the crowd hadn’t lost any wattage a half-hour later during postgame interviews.
“That was Jurgen’s plan, to get me back with the group and give me that extra confidence boost and extra sharpness,” said Holden. “I really felt that out there tonight and that was a good half for me personally and for the team, to really set us onto some positive momentum going into the Gold Cup.”
Holden scored twice during the 2009 Gold Cup and looked set to take a place in the regular starting rotation, but a broken leg suffered playing for the USA against the Netherlands in March 2010, limited him to just a few minutes at the World Cup. The following March, a vicious tackle by Jonny Evans of Manchester United opened up a gash on Holden’s leg that required 26 stitches and inflicted serious damage to his left knee.
He recovered in time to play in September 2011, but after being caught in a tackle and experiencing pain in the same knee, an examination revealed cartilage damage that sent him into rehabilitation yet again. Once he got back into shape, Bolton sent him out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday, for which he played just four matches. But that was enough for Klinsmann to pick him.
“We just want to get him back on track,” said Klinsmann. “We want to see if he can catch up quickly. He went through a lot of difficult moments the last one and a half years. I was at Bolton before his last injury watching him on his way back into the team before the knee went off again. I think he definitely deserves to come back into our group. There’s no pressure on Stuart at all. He can only win coming back in. He’s highly accepted among the whole group. He’s one of those guys that builds special chemistry.”
Albeit against a weak foe, the U.S. displayed a lot of chemistry in the Guatemala game despite extensive substitutions. Klinsmann left the goalkeeper and back line as is, yet changed all six of the other players. Rather than sputtering as the replacements work their way into the flow, the energized attack took Guatemala apart with Holden and Diskerud and Donovan as the primary catalysts.
“He’s very simple in his approach, said Klinsmann last month. “He’s a very fast thinker. He thinks ahead, he knows how to position himself ahead of time. He doesn’t react too much to the game -- he’s always trying to be a thought ahead of others. Technically, he’s a one-two touch player who doesn’t show off.”
Obviously pleased with his 45-minute contribution, Holden gave credit to the system and its components as well as the coach’s messages to the players during the past month. Away from the spotlight, Klinsmann been mentoring and preparing dozens of players for their contributions, whether they be in friendlies, during the Hexagonal, or this month at the Gold Cup.
“You get out there and get the ball moving,” said Holden of Klinsmann’s basic philosophy. “With every touch and every pass you connect your confidence comes back more and more and you start to find yourself within the game. For me it was a seamless transition. Jurgen spoke about it a lot over the last four weeks , about guys know what’s expected of them and their roles; not just the starters, [also] the guys who are going to replace them. Everyone’s on the same page. That’s a real big quality of our team.”