The United States men’s national team has struggled recently, and despite reaching the Hexagonal — the final stage in World Cup qualifying — there is one key performer whose availability for his country would be a definite game changer.

Scottish-American Stuart Holden, 27, is one of Major League Soccer’s most skillful and dynamic products of recent years, but his career has thus far primarily been defined by a line of injuries that has unfortunately stunted the starlet’s growth by keeping him off the field.

Holden is currently in the final stages of rehabbing cartilage damage from a knee injury suffered in an English Premier League game over a year ago. Formerly a key part of the national team setup, he has not represented the U.S. since being sent on as a late-game substitute against England in the 2010 World Cup, and his presence has been sorely missed.

The former Clemson standout has remained optimistic through months of intensive rehab, stating in a February interview with ESPN, “I think about it, and then, bang, it’s gone, and I’m only looking forward because you can’t change the past.”

Holden’s first career obstruction came just after he signed with the English club Sunderland as a 19-year-old in 2005, when he was attacked outside a local bar. A fractured eye socket, followed by a training-session ankle injury, ended his time with the club and paved the way for his return to the States.

Holden won back-to-back MLS Cup titles with the Houston Dynamo in 2006 and 2007 and returned to England in 2010, signing a deal with Bolton Wanderers.

As the 2010 World Cup approached, Stuart Holden was playing an integral role in the U.S. attack, lining up alongside mainstays Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. In March of that year, Holden took the field for a pre-World Cup friendly against the Netherlands. What was meant to be just a warm-up match, however, turned into a nightmare.

Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong, lunging for a loose ball, collided with Holden mid-stride, breaking his fibula and seemingly ending his dream of making the trip to South Africa. Three months later, against all odds, Holden came on in the dying minutes of a 1-1 tie with England. Though he wouldn’t make another appearance in the competition, Holden’s courage and dedication had prepared him for yet another disastrous blow.

Holden’s great promise when fit was showcased during his 2010-2011 campaign with Bolton. His contributions mainly came from his ability to make tackles (he finished second in the league in tackles per game), retain possession and move forward up the pitch. In this sense, Stuart Holden is of a very rare breed. He has an MLS-inspired toughness combined with a classic English football skill set, attributes that resulted in him being named Bolton’s 2010-11 Player of the Year.

Just as Holden was starting to work his way back into the U.S. side with such strong EPL performances, however, another horrific collision, this time with Manchester United defender Johnny Evans, ended his season. The impact from Evans’ cleat tore Holden’s ACL and left a gash requiring 26 stitches. Even worse, doctors found misplaced cartilage in his knee months later, requiring a whole new set of recovery drills and strength training.

Holden’s story is especially pressing considering the current state of U.S. soccer. Aside from Tim Howard in goal and the Donovan-Dempsey-Bradley core up the field, nothing is ever certain.

Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has often been forced to deploy a defensive-minded, non-creative lineup in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying this year in order to get the results necessary to advance.

It’s been three years since his last consistent string of appearances for the Americans, but Stuart Holden isn’t too far off, having recently begun light training with Wanderers.

It will still take months for him to regain his endurance, though, as well as a couple hard tackles to wipe away the trepidation that comes with a history of devastating injury. Holden’s competitive fire and in-game adrenaline, on the other hand, have only been strengthened by his misfortune.

“I have a sickly competitive mind,” he told ESPN in February.

Sometimes, the game of soccer is just that — mind over matter. Stuart Holden has had a lot of time for thinking. The US should hope he has less.

Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.

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