When the Bolton Wanderers face FC Tampa Bay on Thursday at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, the English Premier League club will take the field without one of its top players. But soccer followers will undoubtedly be looking to the sideline for a glimpse of midfielder and U.S. national team player Stuart Holden, 25. Holden, recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of this summer's Gold Cup, is one of the bright young faces in the game and has been often tagged a key part of the U.S. team's success in the future.
He has drawn adoration from fans not only for his talent but also for his engaging demeanor off the field. Holden was a guest TV analyst for the Gold Cup final between the United States and Mexico.
Last week, Holden chatted with the St. Petersburg Times by phone from England about rebounding from injury, playing in the EPL, the inspiration he gains from his father and the attention his gravity-defying hair receives.
How's the injury (a broken bone in his left knee)? When is your goal to get back?
I haven't had a setback yet; it's more just not rushing it. People automatically set it at six months. I just thought it was important to put in my head that if I wasn't ready in six months that something was wrong. I'm moving along well. I did rehabbing in the States with the U.S. national team trainer. That went well, and now I'm (in England). I've been working on strengthening it, and everything my knee's been tested on has done well. I've just got to move forward, and hopefully I'm looking at late September, early October.
A lot of times, you're mentioned as the future of the U.S. national team, the heir apparent to Landon Donovan. How do you handle that?
I think it's exciting. I really haven't had the proper opportunity to make my mark on the national team. It seems like before every major tournament, I've picked up an unfortunate injury. I'm really looking forward to this next year and coming back fit and healthy and playing a big role for Bolton and helping the national team go through World Cup qualifying. Any time you get to represent your country, it's a huge honor. I can't wait to get back with the group.
You weren't able to play in the Gold Cup, but you were in the broadcast booth for the final. How was that?
It was cool. … (Coach Bob Bradley) was really cool with letting me be a part of it all and letting me come into the meals and be with the guys. That was a little boost for me. And being in the broadcast booth, it was tough, because these guys are my teammates, especially when things weren't going well (the United States lost the final to Mexico 4-2). It hurt me, because I wanted to be out there, and then I had to talk about it. It was a cool experience, though. It gives me a little more motivation to come back fit.
Your injuries have come at such tough times. Last year, a knee injury affected your impact on the World Cup team, and this year's kept you out of the Gold Cup. Has going through them made you stronger at 25?
Yeah, 100 percent. And I'm a big believer that you have to take positives from everything in your life. You never want to pick up an injury, but when you do, you have to look at it and see how it can help you in your life. With this last one, it's tested me mentally, and I've come through those tests so far and have maintained a positive attitude and stayed focused on the future. I can't wait to get out there and play again, and once I do, it will make all this hard work worth it.
When you signed with Bolton (in January 2010), you said if it was about the money, you'd be in Portugal. Why did you want Bolton?
I really wanted to play for the manager, Owen Coyle, and I wanted to play in the Premier League. At that point, the money didn't matter. I had a four-year contract offer in Portugal on the table. I would have much rather taken a risk on myself. (Coyle) gave me an opportunity to prove myself. He said, "I'm going to give you a six-month contract, and it's up to you to show you deserve it." I went out there and worked hard every day, had some good games and earned myself a longer deal. Now I've got a couple more years here (Holden is signed through 2013). I love my life here in Bolton. It's a friendly environment, and the guys are fun to be around. At the same time, everybody works hard, and we have a good team. I think the fans of Tampa Bay will enjoy watching us play.
You never take off a Livestrong bracelet that was given to you by you father, Brian, who died of pancreatic cancer two years ago. (Holden has also started a foundation, Holden's Heroes, for cancer research and awareness.) What impact did he leave you with?
I haven't taken (the bracelet) off in six years. My dad was a huge role model in my life, and he was also my best friend, so when you lose someone like that, it's tough. But at the same time, I know he was proud of what I had accomplished at that point, as a person and on the field. Before the game, I tape the bracelet up and think about him every time I go on the field, knowing all his belief in me helped me get to where I am today.
I know you're a big Twitter guy (Holden has 192,600-plus followers on Twitter and was named the 16th-best athlete to follow by CBSSports.com), but you might be the only guy whose hair (@StuHoldensHair) has 2,225 followers (as of Tuesday night). What's the key to the coif?
I've always kind of messed with my hair since I was younger. I don't know who started the Twitter account, but I think it's hilarious. I've jumped on board, and even on TV doing the studio thing, people were writing to me saying, "Your hair looks amazing." It's kind of turned into a cult following. It's pretty sweet. So if anyone out there wants me to sponsor some hair gel, let me know.