Say what you will about the U.S. National Team’s performance in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, after all it is an experimental squad seemingly designed to give Coach Bob Bradley a better idea of the quality and the extent of his team’s depth as it approaches the second half of CONCACAF’s Fourth, and Final, Round of World Cup Qualification matches and presumably the World Cup finals in South Africa next year, but it is clear that Stuart Holden is a future face of U.S. Soccer.
The 23 year old attacking midfielder was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, but grew up in Sugar Land, Texas, the ever expanding Houston suburban city. As a youth, Holden suffered an injury that resulted in him gaining enough weight that his soccer dreams appeared dead, but he regained his form and obtained a spot on Clemson University’s soccer team in 2003. In early 2005, Sunderland brought Holden over to England, but on March 12th of that year he was jumped outside of a bar in Newcastle and his left eye socket was fractured.
Holden returned to the United States and joined the newly christened Houston Dynamo in 2006. Holden made his MLS debut on May 27, 2006 and scored his first MLS goal in a 1-1 draw against New England Revolution on July 22, 2006. That November, Holden converted his penalty kick in the Dynamo’s MLS Cup victory over New England.
In 2008, Holden was a member of the U.S. Olympic Soccer team at Beijing, scoring the winning goal in the team’s first match, which was against Japan. It wasn’t until the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup that Holden finally earned his first senior national team cap for the U.S.A. when he started against Grenada on July 4th in Seattle, Washington. Holden also scored his first senior team goal in that match. Holden did not see any playing time against Honduras in the second match of the group stage, but on Saturday July 11th, Holden scored the stoppage time equalizer against Haiti. In addition to scoring two goals in his two starts, Holden also garnered an assist on DavyArnaud’s goal against Haiti and showed himself worthy of wearing the number 10 jersey with his strong play in midfield and willingness to take solid shots from distance.
Holden’s recent success at the international level has to be attributed, in part, to the leadership duties he inherited when Dwayne De Rosario was traded to Toronto F.C. last fall. Initially, Holden appeared tentative in his new role as leader of the midfield, passing when he should have shot for goal and shooting for goal when he should have passed. Despite some early missteps, Holden has managed 4 goals and 3 assists for the Dynamo this season, in addition to being a strong presence in the midfield.
To solely focus on Holden’s on pitch performance would be a mistake, because Holden has come to epitomize the idea of the citizen athlete. In addition to his numerous appearances in the local media for the purpose of promoting the Dynamo, Holden, along with many of his teammates, makes regular, lengthy visits to the Texas Children’s Hospital. And for those of us who follow him (and his teammates) on Twitter, we know Holden likes to get into mischief and play complicated jokes on his teammates.
The reality for American soccer in general and MLS in particular is that it has failed to offer up a true, well-rounded poster-player for the game. While Landon Donovan is a talented player on the pitch, his off pitch persona is not very well defined. Meanwhile, a player like Stuart Holden has proven his worth on the pitch, at both the club and country level, and has developed a strong persona that extends beyond the game and the pitch.
Its players like Holden that MLS and USSF need to promote, to make their chosen poster boy appeals to the die hard footy fan as well as the neophyte footy fan. When you think NBA you think Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. When you think NFL you think Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. When you think MLB you think Derek Jeter. But when the run of the mill American sports fan thinks soccer or MLS who do they think of? I’m not sure, but I do hope it isn’t that non-American David Beckham.
The time has come for MLS and USSF to start promoting certain players, such as Stuart Holden, in the wider media and working to get them strong endorsement deals. After 13 years, the MLS needs to establish its media/marketing image in a manner that appeals to wide spectrums of Americans. And, on the heels of its recent Confederations Cup resurgence, USSF needs to lock in the National team’s place in American society.
While Holden’s technical skills would likely benefit from playing in Europe, he is a player that MLS and USSF are better off keeping stateside, even if that means finding ways to arrange short, complicated loans for him to European teams during the MLS off-season. Because, in the end, it would be detrimental to the future of MLS and USSF if Holden spends his career in Europe, where mainstream American sports media can ignore him. The time has come for MLS and USSF to start promoting its marquee guys, and they wouldn’t go wrong by promoting Holden.