Last Thursday, to much fanfare, U.S. Soccer and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann officially announced that Stuart Holden will be making his long-awaited, and much anticipated, return to the United States men’s national team.
Holden was named as one of 26 players to the team’s roster for its upcoming training camp which will include friendlies against Belgium and Germany and conclude with World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras.
Since suffering a knee injury in March 2011 after a horror challenge from Jonny Evans during a match between Bolton and Manchester United, Holden has not featured for the USMNT and has only made eight club appearances. Although Holden’s initial recovery only took six months, with the midfielder returning in September 2011 for a 90-minute effort against Aston Villa, a follow-up after the Villa match revealed cartilage damage and another long spell on the sidelines.
With Holden missing the entire 2011-12 English Premier League campaign, Bolton would be relegated, clearly missing Holden, who was the team’s Player of the Year in the 2010-11 campaign. Holden would not return again for Bolton until January 2013, coming into an FA Cup match as a 74th-minute substitute.
So now that Holden is back for the USMNT, the question becomes, where does he fit in and how will Jurgen Klinsmann use him?
In Holden’s absence, some USMNT fans have come to believe that he is the answer to the U.S.’ creativity woes—that Holden is the type of attacking playmaker the U.S. needs to jump start its lethargic attack. However, Holden has never been the type of No. 10, the maestro, that the U.S. lacks. Even in his Player of Year 2010-11 season, Holden only scored two goals and had two assists in 26 league starts.
In fact, Holden is more of a No. 8, a box-to-box midfielder who begins the attack, rather than the type of player who excels in creating goals in the final third of the field. The problem for Holden is that the U.S. already has a number of quality players who fit the No. 8 role.
Michael Bradley is clearly the U.S.’ most consistent midfielder and is capable of playing both the No. 8 and the No. 6 (defensive midfielder) role. When paired with Jermaine Jones, Klinsmann has shown a preference towards using Bradley as the No. 6 and Jones as the No. 8—although Jones is more than capable of playing the No. 6 role as well.
And that is to say nothing of Sacha Kljestan, who is also a No. 8. Despite being a consistent starter and performer for the past three years for back-to-back Belgian league champions Anderlecht, Kljestan hasn’t started a game for the U.S. since June 2011. While Kljestan is a somewhat divisive figure among USMNT fans, it is hard to believe that Holden, who has played a grand total of eight games in his most recent recovery, is more ready to play than Kljestan, who has started 116 games in Europe over the past three seasons.
With Bradley, Jones and Kljestan all capable of playing the No. 8 role, Klinsmann also has a cadre of players suited for the No. 6 position competing for time in the lineup with Maurice Edu, Danny Williams and Kyle Beckerman earning frequent call-ups. While most fans would agree that Edu, Williams and Beckerman have all been underwhelming in their recent performances with the USMNT, they are clearly players that Klinsmann favors.
In Klinsmann’s 4-1-3-2, most recently used in the October qualifiers, Holden would have at least five other players competing for time in the midfield (Beckerman was left off the latest U.S. roster). In Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1, used in the March qualifiers, there is one more available midfield spot—the attacking midfielder—but, under Klinsmann, that role has most often been occupied by Clint Dempsey.
One option could be for Klinsmann to revert to the 4-1-3-1-1 that he used early in his tenure, or even the 4-3-3 that he used at times last summer, but those formations create problems as well. Both of those systems create single-striker sets, exactly what most pundits have said is limiting Jozy Altidore’s production up top. Perhaps a midfield combination of Jones, Bradley and Holden, or Bradley, Holden and Kljestan could be creative enough to make a solo-striker system work, but that remains to be seen.
The final option would be to push one of the U.S.’ central midfielders into a wide position, although that is not ideal. Danny Williams has been used by Klinsmann, ineffectively, in a wide role on multiple occasions. It is almost inconceivable, and probably outright foolish, to even think of moving Bradley out of the middle.
Jones looked surprisingly good as a wide player against Russia in the November friendly last year, so that may be an option worth looking at again. Both Kljestan and Holden himself have been used in wide roles for the USMNT in the past, but it is clearly neither player’s best position. Finally, Dempsey could be moved wide, but as he is the U.S.’ most potent goal scorer, such a move seems to be a mistake.
The fact of the matter is, that while Holden’s recovery is admirable and ultimately should create more depth for the U.S. in the midfield, he is not the offensive juggernaut some U.S. fans believe him to be. He also happens to be returning to a U.S. team that is deeper at the center midfield position than any other position on the field.
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