Twenty-six stitches and six months. The second significant injury in two years.
Not much else could go wrong for Stuart Holden.
The same could be said for a number of players on the U.S. national team.
During the same weekend when Charlie Davies made a triumphant return to a senior level professional soccer side, scoring two goals for the MLS's DC United, the most exciting and most improved addition to the U.S. team will not be available for two important friendlies.
This American squad is starting to resemble a Greek tragedy.
Stuart Holden has once again joined the list of injured players during the most unfortunate of times, a list that, depending on the month, has included Charlie Davies, Oguchi Onyewu and Jermaine Jones, just to name a few.
Any of these players could have played or can play a key part in the national team's success when healthy.
To lose development, playing or integration time with an essential national team component affects the the current American player pool, a pool with a marked drop in talent after the first eleven to fourteen players.
The U.S. couldn't afford to lose any of them and Stuart Holden is probably the most significant loss for the future of this team.
Up until his injury, Holden's form for Bolton had been impeccable, with him starting, playing and being an integral piece of his club's success. His performances created an argument as whether or not he should start for his national side and not just somewhere in the midfield, but in the center.
Without him, the team is most likely to return to some semblance of a 4-4-2 (even if Dempsey or Donovan plays as a withdrawn striker/attacking midfielder).
Not that there's anything overly wrong with employing a formation that works for a team (the argument as to whether or not this is the right formation for the U.S. is a topic for a different article), but Holden absence makes the team fairly predictable.
This issue ended up haunting the U.S. in the World Cup. There was no Plan B when Plan A failed. Bradley's only choice was to throw the kitchen sink at Slovenia and Algeria, but overwhelming pressure and heart can only take a team so far (ask the English team how that's worked for them since 1966).
Like Holden's Bolton, opponents really only have to plan for one team; it's starting eleven. It's not Bolton's or the United States' fault, it's what money and resources are available at club and country. Bolton can't afford a bench as deep as Manchester United, Barcelona, or Chelsea. So opponents need to only plan for so many possibilities.
And Bob Bradley can't create a world class forward, outside midfielders with the individual skill of Cristiano Ronaldo, or make one of his numerous defensive midfielders attackers (it doesn't matter how much Maurice Edu or Michael Bradley claim they're "box-to-box" players just because they make smart runs, it's not the same). A national side only has so many options.
Because of this, opponents only need to plan for a few orthodox formations and a handful of possibilities from the United States. If Dempsey and Donovan can be nullified, pressure placed on defenders, avoid set pieces and cover for a counter, then an opponent can win.
In most situations, U.S. challengers don't have to worry about an enigmatic player, the American approach or switching a formation. Outside of D. & D., there are few game changers.
Holden is the first American player since Davies to change the team's dynamic.
Davies added speed, movement, a touch of skill and a finisher's eye to the forward line. For the midfield, Holden could distribute, hold the ball under pressure, shoot from distance, and tackle when necessary (which is how he was injured).
Also, he plays in between the attacking and holding midfielders, a key element missing from this squad (the Chile friendly, where the central mids held deep, comes to mind).
Barcelona's Xavi, when he played for Liverpool Xabi Alonso and a more relevant comparison, Danny Murhpy for Fulham, all play this position for their clubs. Clearly, it's an ingredient for success.
Most importantly, Holden's skill set frees up Donovan and Dempsey from their auxiliary responsibilities that normally constrain their ability to influence the game.
Consider the danger these two pose if they're free to run at defenders or take on the opposition (respectively) without fear of a lack of support or if they lose the ball, that they'll never see it again.
Add to this scenario a team with a number of individuals that score timely goals and all of a sudden, the U.S. becomes very dangerous.
Imagine Landon Donovan sweeping in behind a left fullback on the end of an incisive Holden through ball and he's one on one with the center back. He doesn't have to worry about holding the ball to relieve pressure–between Holden and Jermaine Jones, they've been doing it all game.
Meanwhile, Dempsey sneaks into the box because he doesn't need play deep because he knows his central midfield can cover...
It's an exciting idea.
It's also why a number of fans were clamoring for Holden's presence as a starter, and not as a right midfielder either. It's why so many were salivating for the Argentina and Paraguay friendlies.
Unfortunately, it's a dream. At least for now as Holden has a six month rehabilitation, and then, who knows? Will someone take his place on the team? Will he ever reach this form again? Will there be other injuries? Will they have the chemistry and understanding to play together?
Only time will tell and the only good news from this injury is that it happened at the beginning of this World Cup cycle and not two months before the opening game.
Until then, fans will have to hope America's usual suspects can hold off Argentina, that a couple of surprises emerge from the new call-ups and that Stuart Holden's comeback is short, sweet, and successful.
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