About 15 months ago, Stuart Holden returned from a lengthy injury layoff, and the hype machine went into overdrive.
Widely thought of as a starting-caliber midfielder in the U.S. national team player pool and one of the brightest Americans playing abroad as winner of Bolton's 2010-11 Player of the Year honors, Holden had spent six grueling months on the sideline after yet another major injury setback before he could step back onto the field.
Manchester United defender Jonny Evans' tackle in March 2011 ripped a gash in Holden left thigh about a year after Nigel de Jong derailed Holden's breakout season with a tackle in a Netherlands-USA friendly that broke his leg, once again putting Holden's promise and U.S. fans' collective dream of seeing him play at a high level for both club and country on the backburner.
Upon his return to competitive action the following September, a routine follow-up procedure revealed that Holden would need six more months on the sidelines to repair torn cartilage. More than twice that time period has since passed as the ever-persistent, enthusiastic and upbeat Holden has gone through another round of tireless rehabilitation, but finally the light at the end of the tunnel has shown itself.
With the word Thursday that the 27-year-old Holden has returned to training with Bolton's first team, U.S. fans can once again dream of Holden donning the U.S. crest and red-striped uniform, combining with Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, and bringing his element of tenacity and class to Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup. Before jumping all the way to that conclusion again, though, take a step back and let his comeback happen organically.
It would be a disservice to Holden to heap mounds of expectations upon him before he is ready completely prepared to take to the field again. There is no question that his potential as a player, if he can dodge the injury bug for the long term, is off the charts. Before then, though, he must be capable of reintegrating himself into competitive action, achieving consistency, feeling comfortable with his corrected and untested leg and getting back to the level that he was at two years ago, when he achieved hero status in Lancashire.
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To Bolton's credit, the club appears to have no plans to rush Holden back to the field before he is fully ready. According to the club, Holden is training one day, then sitting out the next as he works his way back into form and match fitness slowly, surely and safely.
New manager Dougie Freedman's approach should be met with applause by U.S. soccer fans. For one, he refuses to accelerate Holden's return to the field even though Bolton's first season since being demoted from the Premier League has seen the club struggle mightily. Sitting in 18th place (yet also an equidistant eight points from both the promotion playoffs and the relegation zone in the muddled League Championship table), Bolton would clearly benefit by Holden's presence on the field as soon as possible, but not at the cost of seeing him potentially get hurt again from returning too soon.
"The problem we have, and I do stress this to everyone, is that Stuart has been out for a long time and there will be absolutely no rush from the coaches' point of view," Freedman told the club's official website. "He is training with us on every second day. He is looking nice and fit, and his sharpness will come. He is such an enthusiastic lad, and he is great to have around."
Freedman's comments are also an indication that he thinks quite highly of Holden, which is important considering that Holden was an Owen Coyle guy. Instead of joining Coyle at Burnley, Holden followed the manager to Reebok Stadium, and even though Coyle was dismissed earlier in the year after a poor run of results, that does not appear to have altered Holden's revered standing at Bolton with the new regime in place.
Bolton pledging its future to Holden seems quite appropriate after Holden did the same to the club during its relegation battle last season. Even though the easy thing for Bolton now would be to throw Holden back onto the field with the first indication that he can play again to make good on that mutual admiration, the club has learned its lesson, and so too should the most ardent Holden and U.S. supporters. Unplug the hype machine and let the winter months pass with a caring, yet patient interest as one of the United States' brightest stars goes about his business in getting back to where he belongs.
"We are still a couple months away from seeing Stuart, let's not kid ourselves, but we are looking forward to that," Freedman said.
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