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The Big Pitcher: Holden Out for a Hero

(Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez Icon/SMI)

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Apologies for the title, which will now be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

I can’t think of Stuart Holden without thinking of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball standout drafted second overall in 1986 by the reigning NBA-champion Boston Celtics, who was supposed to bolster the team through the remainder of Larry Bird’s career and ease its transition into the era that would become dominated by Michael Jordan. Instead he died two days after the draft, the cause of death determined to be a cardiac arrhythmia caused by cocaine usage. The Celtics wouldn’t win another title until 2008.

What happened to each of them is obviously incomparable; no amount of freak injuries, just glance through this in case you’ve forgotten some of them, can ever equal a tragic loss of life. It’s the aftermath that we’ll look at here: what happens when someone’s potential remains potential indefinitely.

Bias’ death turned him into a lot of things: Totem for the War on Drugs and “One Mistake is All It Takes.” Cautionary tale for a generation. And, from a sporting perspective, a tabula rasa for an  audience raised to believe that potential was the equal of performance. Because the only way athletic potential ever dissipates is when it’s measured against the eventual proficiency of the athlete, Len Bias’ has remained undiminished for more than 25 years. Nobody knows what would have happened to him, and so everyone is free to assume the best, that he would have been the second coming of Jordan or the first coming of LeBron James.

What Holden shares with Bias is the sense not of wasted but of unrealized potential. Holden’s play had steadily improved every time he stayed on the field for a prolonged period of time, culminating in his 2010-2011 season at Bolton, where he was named the team’s player of the year despite missing the last two months of the season after Jonny Evans attempted to perform microfracture surgery on him with his boot.

That level of improvement made the gaps - practically three seasons worth in total – all the more frustrating, but because of them, there has always been the sense around Holden of a career interrupted. His ceiling has been harder to spot than that of say, Jose Francisco Torres or Sacha Kljestan. His passing would be a valuable asset to the team in any era, his stints on the flanks showcased his offensive ability, while the oft-cited tackles stat from the 2010-2011 season suggested the promise that he could put in the defensive work required to man the center.

Because of that, Holden’s been his own blank slate for U.S. fans for at least the last two years. He could be whatever we wanted. Shifting to a possession-oriented game? He’d be perfect for that. Central midfield trio playing too defensively? It’d be better if we had Holden in one of the slots. Just generally sick of Jermaine Jones? If only Stu hadn’t gotten hurt.

We don’t know how good Holden might have gotten if he hadn’t spent much of the least three years rehabbing from a series of increasingly unfortunate injuries, and so we were free to assume the best. In the minds of many U.S. fans, an alternate history of Holden’s career would look like this:

March 3, 2010 - Holden breaks Nigel de Jong’s leg in a friendly in Amsterdam.

June 12, 2010 - Holden, starting in place of Ricardo Clark, recognizes that Oguchi Onyewu has been sucked forward and follows Steven Gerrard’s run, intercepting Emile Heskey’s pass. USA 1-0 England.

June 26, 2010 - Holden takes his touch around Anthony Annan(?), instead of directly into him. USA beats Ghana 1-0, but loses to Uruguay on penalties after Luis Suarez stops a Stu Holden header on the line with his hands in the final moments of extra time.

June 25, 2011 - Holden interrupts Mexico’s Gold Cup Final comeback with a second-half hat trick and, for good measure, breaks Giovani dos Santos’ leg shortly after halftime. The US wins 5-3. 

December 12, 2011 - Holden, unencumbered by the burden of rehabilitation, discovers a cure for the avian flu.

May 13, 2012 - Bolton, powered by Holden, nip Tottenham to fourth place and are denied a Champions League spot only by Chelsea’s victory in the tournament. Ownerships loosens the purse strings, and the team signs Clint Dempsey during the summer.

May 19, 2013 - Bolton do the double. Holden appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the 49th time in three years, tying Michael Jordan’s then-record.

June/July 2013 - Stuart Holden secedes from the United States. The new nation of STU-S-A wins the 2013 Confederations Cup.

You may have noticed it didn’t exactly turn out that way, but because it didn’t, we’re still talking about Holden in terms of potential. Whether he’ll be ready to start in 2014, whether he’ll be good enough to start in 2014, whether even if he is both those things he’ll be considered as a complement to Michael Bradley rather than a replacement for him and offensive substitute. It’s a little odd to have so much uncertainty about a player who turns 28 next month, but then again when I read his birth date on Wikipedia I went to look it up on another source to make sure. Twenty-eight? Already?

If Holden stays healthy – knock on wood, salt over shoulder, spin three times, etc, or just have him play next season in a bubble – then eventually there will come a reckoning between that perceived, best-case scenario potential and the actual potential of someone who has played approximately a dozen meaningful games in the last two years. He’s making all the right noises about coming back better than ever, but the differences between Two good halves split between Guatemala and Belize would mean nearly nothing for 99 of the ASN 100. For Holden, it has people, including these guys, talking about whether he’ll be ready to start in Brazil.

Such talk is at the moment at least partially facetious, but only partially. It betrays a toned-down version of the same kind of optimism that would have had Holden earning a transfer to Bayern Munich and passing comprehensive immigration reform this summer if he had never gotten hurt.

These outsized expectations are Holden’s blessing and curse. We don’t expect him to live up to them, but we’ll always talk about how great it would have been if he had. No matter what he does for the rest of his career, the question will always hang over him: What if?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

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