Commentary

Stuart Holden on the national team, soccer camps, retirement and, yes, Jonny Evans

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Stuart Holden is at the crossroads in his soccer career. He represented the USA at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup, the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Cup and most recently started for the USA in the final of the 2013 Gold Cup, but at the age of 30 and about to be a father for the first time, he must soon make a decision.

Does he make one more comeback or call it quits after a career ravaged by injuries in the last five years and move on in soccer? He has a promising career as a color analyst -- he worked the USA-Mexico game for Fox Sports -- and has launched a soccer camp business with former U.S. teammates Landon Donovan and Brian Ching.

Holden spoke at the Soccer in America marketing conference presented by Soccer America and MediaPost this week in New York and talked about injuries and comebacks -- the "dark place" he says athletes go -- and retirement. He also talked about MLS, the national team, soccer camps and, yes, Jonny Evans.

The Scottish-born Holden briefly attended Clemson University and had a short stint at Newcastle marred by a fractured cheekbone suffered in the unprovoked assault outside a bar before becoming an MLS star with his hometown Houston Dynamo. Holden said that it was harder each year to leave the Dynamo as the money got better in MLS with each contract, but it was his life-long dream to play in the Premier League. "I was ready after four years," he said.

For all that happened after he joined Bolton Wanderers in 2010 -- the knee injury suffered in a collision with Manchester United's Evans in March 2011 and the subsequent knee injuries that limited him to two league appearance with Bolton over the next three seasons -- he doesn't regret the move.

"It's a decision I am so incredibly happy to have made," said Holden, "because it challenged me as a player, it challenged me as a person to get out of my comfort zone and go and move over there."

If he had to fast forward to today, he acknowledged it wouldn't be easy to leave MLS and said he understood why players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have returned, making "substantial, life-changing money in MLS, which was not the case when I was playing in MLS."

Holden admits he has his own major life decisions to make, whether to begin another comeback or move into television full-time. He also launched Helm Elite, a soccer camp program, with Donovan and Ching, an idea they developed over coffee. They all wanted to remain in the game and felt the biggest impact they could have was at the grassroots level. They started with two camps in San Diego and Austin in 2015 and will hold five camps in 2016. The goal wasn't to make money -- the first two camps broke even -- but to prove the concept worked, build the brand and have fun.

"We wanted to do something as friends and colleagues," Holden said. "We played together. We enjoyed each other to be able to do a soccer camp and have fun. Did we enjoy it? We loved it. I never thought I'd get such satisfaction from coaching 10-year-olds to 12-year-olds, all the way up to 18 and 19."

Holden, a self-described gaming nerd back in high school, handles the marketing, social media and web, "anything that involves a computer." Ching, who holds an economics degree from Gonzaga, handles the finances and events, while Donovan is in charge of sponsorships.

Holden said launching a camp with an eight-week lead time, even with their name recognition and huge social media followings, "was a slight bit of arrogance" and they almost had to cancel the camp in San Diego. He acknowledged they didn't do a good enough job of explaining what they were offering. "Parents plan ahead -- who'd have thought?" said Holden, whose wife is expecting their first baby in February.

Holden says that Concacaf  is never easy but the USA should qualify for Russia 2018 and most likely always will qualify for the World Cup even if it played poorly in the Gold Cup and lost to Mexico in the Concacaf Cup.

"As far as my most recent memory goes," he said, "this is the most uncertainty around where we actually stand top to bottom. The senior team not performing well. The Olympic team in a do-or-die [series] now against Colombia, who's no pushover, to go to the Olympics. The U-17s didn't win a game. The U-20s didn't do well."

Holden grew up in the traditional ODP system -- he played for the state team in South Texas but never made the regional team until shortly before he joined the U.S. U-20 national team -- but he feels it's only a matter of time before American soccer sees the impact of the current programs being developed by MLS clubs -- the Development Academy and USL second-team programs.

The defining moment to Holden's career was the 50-50 challenge with Evans. Holden was on his way to being named Bolton's Player of the Year, and the club was exceeding expectations in the Premier League. He came back from the broken leg suffered at the hands of Dutchman Nigel de Jong -- he played in the 2010 World Cup three months later -- but he was never the same after the Evans collision. Does Holden hold any animosity toward Evans?

"The natural answer is yes," he said. "There's no denying that after that tackle my career went downhill. One major injury led to another one and another one. My body compensated. But I'm a big believer that what's done is done. I can't change that fact, and I can't go back on that split second decision I made whether to go in for that tackle or not. I still can picture it in my head. The pass came. The ball skipped on the turf a little bit in front of me. The 80th minute. Old Trafford. He was the last man. If I tackle him, I'm breaking in and scoring the winning goal at Old Trafford and we're winning 1-0. It turned out he came in two feet up and smashed my knee to pieces."

Holden said making a comeback from an injury is just about the hardest thing professional athletes must do, and they're already scrutinized on the field and off.

"When you're battling something like that," he said, "you're in a dark place, you're fighting yourself to motivate to get back on the field. People have asked me so many times why haven't I quit. And sometimes, most recently, I find it hard to answer. 'Why haven't I quit?' Because if you wrote my injury history on a piece of paper and handed it to a coach and said, "'Do you want to sign this guy?' What do you think he's going to say? He's going to laugh in your face. 'What is this guy doing? Is he in a wheelchair?' That's what I deal with now."
5 comments about "Stuart Holden on the national team, soccer camps, retirement and, yes, Jonny Evans".
  1. Dan Phillips, November 13, 2015 at 6:15 p.m.

    Stay with it Stu and come back and play again. USMNT needs you!

  2. j bapper, November 13, 2015 at 8:04 p.m.

    Man we could use a creative box to box midfielder like Stuart. Unfortunately we have no one that fits that role. Good luck to you Stuart... I hope you can give it one more try but you have your whole life ahead of you and nothing beats fatherhood.

  3. Daniel Clifton, November 13, 2015 at 9:48 p.m.

    I wish I could have seen that healthy Stuart Holden playing for the USMNT. You just cannot predict events. If Stuart had avoided that two footed tackle by Johnny Evans, where would he be today physically? No way to know. Do any of these guys realize how they can effect another person's life with rash tackles? Is winning one game so much more important?

  4. Lou vulovich, November 14, 2015 at 1:46 a.m.

    Holden was just breaking into the next level as a player, I remember watching that particular game and seeing the tackle, it's always very sad to see a player injured and worse when its reckless. The EPL is blatant for that and always has been. What was Evans punishment a few games for destroying a promising career.
    Holden should feel proud he was a very good player on the verge of possibly becoming a great player.

  5. Joe Linzner, November 16, 2015 at 10:26 a.m.

    Perhaps Mr Holden will initiate soccer centric training based on skill and the creative side in contrast to size and perceived athleticism. Include vision, movement off the ball.
    Thank you for your service for the National Team of the USA.

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