PORTLAND, OR - Long before his comeback from a crushing run of injuries, U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden found ways to make tough situations work. From 2006 to '09, Holden made just $35,000 a year as a budding star for MLS's Houston Dynamo. So what did he do? Holden supplemented his income by playing -- and winning -- at online poker.
"I played Texas Hold 'Em and was pretty good at it," said Holden, whose U.S. revival continues on Tuesday in the Americans' Gold Cup opener against Belize (11 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Unimas). "It definitely allowed me to live a better lifestyle than if I'd been making just the $35,000 salary. And maybe that was the reason I was able to play out the four years [on his MLS contract] and leave on a free transfer at the end of that."
Stuart Hold 'Em is a thing of the past -- he stopped playing online poker a few years ago -- but he continues his pattern of succeeding, in good times and bad, by betting on himself. In 2010, Holden's free transfer helped him land with Bolton Wanderers, where he made an instant impression, excelled in the English Premier League and was voted the team's 2010-11 Player of the Year.
A skilled two-way midfielder with a V-12 engine, Holden was emerging as a force for the U.S., too, until the injuries came. During a Netherlands-U.S. friendly in March 2010, Nigel de Jong broke Holden's leg, an injury whose effects kept Holden mostly on the bench during World Cup 2010. Then in March 2011, Manchester United's Jonny Evans ravaged Holden's right knee with a tackle in a league game.
"It was a fracture of the knee joint," said Holden in the lobby of the U.S.'s team hotel here. "The way it happened was one in a million. The surgeon said you'll never see that same injury in soccer. Once it healed, a routine checkup showed there had been damage in the cartilage, so I had to have microfracture surgery. It just takes time. I'm thankful I had great people working with me, because these injuries can't be rushed."
A fractured knee joint. Microfracture surgery. Those are terms that can cause a professional athlete to worry about his livelihood. And while Holden is a relentlessly positive guy, he admits that he began to wonder about his future, even as he kept rehabbing like a man possessed with trainer Jim Hashimoto in Delaware.
In June 2012 Holden said he hit a low point. For three weeks, he and Hashimoto would step up his workouts on grass, doing sharp cuts and higher-intensity drills. And for three weeks, Holden would wake up the next day with his knee swollen like a balloon. Holden decided to have arthroscopic surgery in L.A., and he feared he'd be out another year if more damage was discovered.
But it wasn't. Holden remembers the moment he woke up from surgery and groggily saw his doctor, Bert Mandelbaum, give him two thumbs-up. Elation.
In January of this year, 22 months after the Evans tackle, Holden came onto the field for Bolton against Everton in an FA Cup game and bathed in the chants of the home crowd. STU-S-A! STU-S-A! STU-S-A! "I had goosebumps all up my arms," he says.
Holden said he can't thank his support system enough for helping him get through the hard times, from his girlfriend, Karalynn West ("she's a saint") to his brother, Euan ("he's written me some e-mails that made me want to cry") to the rest of his family to his teammates at Bolton and on the national team. But he also wants people to know that he's not just trying to get back to where he was before the injuries.
"It's not a matter of me getting back to that point. I've got a whole new goal," he said. "I want to be better than back. Even just tactically, there are things I've seen watching more soccer. In the last six months I've been learning more as a player under new coaches. I think I felt that the other night against Guatemala, coming in in the second half and having a better balance going forward and staying back. With all that combined, I'm really excited."
Last Friday, Holden had his first extensive minutes in a U.S. uniform in more than two years. He came on in the second half against Guatemala and was influential in the attack, helping the U.S. to an easy 6-0 friendly win. "For me it was like all the pieces came together," he said. "That's my longest run-out with the national team in a while. I want to be an important player for this team. For me, it's about putting that all together and being a guy who can contribute not just during the Gold Cup but during the World Cup qualifying cycle and in Brazil next year."
Already, Holden said, he owes a big debt of gratitude to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has visited him more than once in England and called Holden in for both last month's World Cup qualifying squad and the Gold Cup. "I'm hoping to reward him and show him his faith in me was justified," said Holden.
You could say Klinsmann is betting on Holden -- just as the player always has on himself. And that's a good thing.