By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 5, 2016) US Soccer Players - At the age of 30, Stuart Holden has officially retired as a professional soccer player. Considering he hasn’t played a competitive first team match in nearly three years, the announcement might seem more formality than practical change.
Holden himself seems comfortable with the decision. He and his wife just welcomed their first child, a life-changing event that will re-center his world in ways that only parents can understand. It’s possible to be a new parent and maintain a grueling soccer regimen. That's the only kind of soccer regimen that’s good enough when the goal is to play top-flight soccer again. However, there's no guarantee of success and the downside could negatively affecting Holden’s quality of life.
Which is to say that Holden probably made the right decision and still has a bright future in front of him contributing to the sport of soccer in other ways. He launched a high-level youth soccer camp business with former USMNT teammates Brian Ching and Landon Donovan. He’s already proven himself to a competent television pundit with immense potential behind a microphone.
Holden is at peace. He has reconciled his soccer career with the long life he has left to live with a growing family and new endeavors. He looks to be incapable of any lingering bitterness.
So let’s be bitter for him. Rather, since bitterness is a negative emotion and Holden is such a positive person, let’s celebrate the good times Holden had on the field while at the same time noting that so much was robbed from him by what we can only call bad luck.
Despite being born in Scotland, Holden was American through and through by the time he commenced his professional career at the age of 19. He arrived in the United States with his family at 10 (just early enough to be sure he lost all traces of a Scottish accent) and went on to Clemson to play college soccer for two years. From there, his British provenance and obvious talent helped him get a shot with Sunderland, just over the border from the country of his birth.
Holden’s bad fortune began during his first attempt to make it in English football. An attack outside of a bar by a pair of Newcastle fans who identified him as a Sunderland player left Holden with a fractured eye socket, derailing his career with the Black Cats. Holden never made an appearance for Sunderland.
The Houston Dynamo provided an opportunity to jumpstart his career back home in Texas. Holden made a mark as a first year pro on an eventual championship team, showing flashes of the ability that would tantalize fans later in his career. After three more excellent years in Dynamo orange, Holden took another crack at England. Despite the best efforts of MLS that included an offer to increase his salary ten-fold, Holden joined Bolton in 2010. It was also during his Houston period that Holden began to appear with the USMNT somewhat regularly. His game-winning goal against Haiti in the 2009 Gold Cup was a particularly standout moment.
It was at Bolton, playing under current Dynamo head coach Owen Coyle, that Holden showed the full extent of his growing talent. That talent that had people pegging him for future stardom for both club and country. After a false start to his second stint in England thanks to a broken leg suffered in a US friendly against the Netherlands, Holden adapted well to the Premier League in his first full season at Bolton. Through the bulk of the 2010-11 campaign, Holden was one of the league’s best midfielders. The company he kept at that level in that season is stunning. The Texan by way of Aberdeen named alongside the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ryan Giggs as the best England’s top flight had to offer.
In 2011, Holden was again waylaid on his way to superstardom. A horrific tackle by Manchester United’s Jonny Evans ended his season two months early and set the stage for years of struggle. In retrospect, it seems like a blessing that Holden even got the few months of relative health between the broken leg and the knee injury he suffered at the hands of Evans. That period, between August of 2010 and late March of 2011 would prove to be the pinnacle of Holden’s tortuous stop-start career.
After getting back to the field six months later, Holden immediately suffered a setback that required more surgery and a protracted recovery period. It wasn’t until January 2013 that Holden was healthy enough to attempt to play his way back into the Bolton team, now playing in the Championship. He might have played a large role in their 2013-14 had bad luck not struck again in the summer. Playing for the United States--finally back in the picture with an eye towards fulfilling his promise for his country--Holden suffered a torn ACL against Panama in the Gold Cup final. The fact that it was the opposite knee from the one he had spent a year and a half rehabilitating only darkens the cloud of misfortune that hung over Holden.
Holden won’t let those clouds follow him into retirement, even though he never made it back from that last catastrophic knee injury. Despite the litany of injuries that limited to just a handful of healthy season, Holden knows, and we should also recognize, that he was blessed with a better career than all by a tiny fraction of players.
That doesn’t mean we can’t pine for what might have been. We’ll never know what an American midfield with Michael Bradley and Stuart Holden playing alongside one another in a major competition might have been like. That, in the most unimportant way possible, is something of a tragedy. Holden joins a list of other American “what ifs” who never got the chance to be everything we dreamed they could be.
Does Holden need us to say "good luck" as he moves into his post-playing career? Let's hope not. Let's hope all the bad luck he's ever going to have has already come and gone.
More From Jason Davis: