By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - Midfielder Stuart Holden will return to the United States national team next week, ending over two years of injury nightmares and with the World Cup finals in Brazil as his goal.
Holden, who plays in England for Bolton Wanderers, was seen as a central part of the rebuilding of the U.S. team after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa before a serious knee injury forced him out of the game.
Talking by phone after working out in Houston this week, Holden told Reuters he is determined to make the most of the chance given to him by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann to start again in international soccer.
"I fully plan on taking this opportunity, taking the bull by the horns and not letting go. I have been given a great chance by Juergen and I don't plan on letting anything get in my way," he said.
A tackle from Manchester United defender Johnny Evans, in a Premier League game in March, 2011, left him needing 26 stitches in his right knee and more seriously with anterior cruciate ligament damage.
What followed was months of rehabilitation work, during which time Bolton were relegated from the Premier League and the U.S. changed head coach with Bob Bradley being replaced by German Klinsmann.
A Scottish-born Texan, Holden had gone from being the bright, young hope of American soccer performing in the highest profile league in the world to a sidelined player with a second tier club.
But it was a September reserve team game in the town of Leyland in central Lancashire when Holden realized he had not been forgotten by his country.
There were just a smattering of spectators watching Bolton's reserve team face lower division Rochdale's second string but among them was Klinsmann.
"It was a big boost for me... he flew over to see me play at Leyland, a small town, he came to see me," Holden recalled.
It was the start of a process in which Klinsmann made sure he was going to keep a close eye on Holden and make sure he knew that he remained on his radar.
"Throughout my re-hab he checked in on me periodically, to see how my knee was getting along and how my spirit was, and for me it was nice to have that from a coach and to know I potentially had a future with the national team, if I put in the work," he added.
But later that month, Holden's return from a six month absence was cut short with the soul-destroying news from a routine test that he also had cartilage damage.
The promised six month return proved optimistic and it was not until 16 months later, January, 2013 that he was back in Bolton's first team.
While out, Holden moved back to the States, working in Delaware with physiotherapist James Hashimoto and in those tough months he says he needed the help of his family to battle through.
"My girlfriend Karalyn moved to Delaware and she was a really big influence on keeping me positive and being someone I could vent my feelings to and at the same time I could get honest feedback from her.
"Obviously my family, I relied on them. That support system was the strongest bond that got me through and helped me maintain the positive outlook that I always try to keep in life. At times, it was really hard for me to put on a brave face because I was struggling internally," he said.
But the hard road back to the game also changed Holden, he says, toughening him.
"The experience over the past couple of years has made me a stronger person mentally, it has really tested me. At the same time, I would be lying if I didn't say I had some bad days. I'm thankful for every day I have now as a footballer," he said.
A loan spell with Sheffield Wednesday at the end of the English season showed that Holden was fit enough to be considered for the U.S's busy summer schedule of friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup and he was rewarded with a call-up from Klinsmann.
"I think he definitely deserves to come back into our group. There's no pressure on Stuart at all. He can only win coming back in," said Klinsmann.
"He's highly accepted among the whole group. He's one of those guys that builds special chemistry. He's a pure giver and he's always looking out for other people," he added praising the "simplicity" of Holden's game and his ability to "think ahead".
For Holden the call-up was finally some long overdue good news.
"It was always my goal to get back on the national team, I haven't been with the team since October, 2010. It really seemed that was my time to break out with the national team but I didn't get a chance to stamp my authority on the team.
"To be back now and with the fact that Juergen sees me as someone who can be a part of the group has made all that hard work worth it," he said.
The U.S. still have some work to do, if they are to make sure of qualification for next June's finals in Brazil but while Holden is focused on working his way back into the squad, he also harbors dreams of playing on the biggest stage of all.
"It would be a fairytale ending to the injury saga. Some people would have written me off a year ago, many wouldn't think I would be at this point.
"Those are the ones I would love to prove wrong. If I could end up at the World Cup it really would be the close of that cycle".
(Reporting By Simon Evans)