HAMBURG – The last time Stuart Holden had stepped onto a soccer field to play in a competitive match, there were more than 90,000 fans in the stands, and Holden was facing mighty Manchester United in a game being shown all around the world.
On Tuesday night in London, Holden returned in a reserve match, with only about a hundred people in the crowd. It was a stark contrast from his last appearance for Bolton, but that didn't keep him from feeling excited about the end if a five-month recovery from the serious knee injury that cut short a successful season, costing him his summer.
"Just getting into some tackles that mean something and playing against guys you don't train with every day was a great feeling," said Holden in a phone interview with FOX Soccer. "When I got pulled off at 80 minutes I told the physio I could have kept going."
Bolton's reserves dropped a 7-0 decision to Fulham, playing a very young squad, but even the lop-sided scoreline couldn't temper Holden's enthusiasm. While his team was dominated, the 2010-11 Bolton Player of the Year was happy with his first game since March.
"Just that feeling of having players running at you, to tackle you, and just being in the game and having your adrenaline pumping again and getting involved in a few tackles. Just all of it. You don't realize how much you miss football when you're injured, that feeling of stepping back out on the pitch. The result aside, I felt it was a decent start for me."
Holden had been sidelined for five months since a studs-up challenge by Manchester United defender Johnny Evans left him with a leg fracture that cost him the rest of the Premier League season. Holden had surgery on the knee, which included having pins inserted to help the fracture heal, and the original prognosis was a six-to-nine month recovery period.
With his game against Fulham's reserves on Tuesday, Holden made it back in five months.
"Having had such a good season up to that point, (the injury) was pretty tough on me," Holden confessed. "I didn't let it get me down too much but I had moments where I was just thinking 'Why me again,' but once I got over that and got off the crutches and started to do work again, it was all business for me."
The injury was the second major leg injury suffered by Holden in little more than a year, with a broken leg suffered in March of 2010 nearly jeopardizing his place with Bolton. On both occasions, Holden was injured by other player's late challenges, something he isn't letting affect how he plays.
"I'll never change the way I play," Holden affirmed. "I'll always be a committed player, but sometimes you've got to look at some of the challenges that maybe you can't win and maybe you don't go into.
"My legs are stronger now and bigger than before and I think I'm even quicker than I was before. For all the knock-backs I've had I've seemed to come back stronger and better in some way and hopefully this is no different."
Holden is hoping to make the Bolton roster for its next league match, on Sept. 10th vs. Manchester United. Once he returns, the questions will go from when will Holden play again to when will Holden return to the US national team. The injury kept Holden from playing a role for the US at the Gold Cup, and now he must try to impress new US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
"My focus is on getting back for Bolton but I've made it no secret that I want to be a big part of the national team going forward," Holden said. "It always feel like when I'm going to get that chance I have a bit of a setback. Now, it's a new manager, a new era, and judging by the previous rosters he's brought in some new faces and is obviously willing to mix things up.
"I'm hoping he'll give me a chance and I'm sure he'll have some plans to come over to England and I hope I play well and he sees me as a part of the future of US Soccer."
Before Holden can think about the national team, he still has to work his way back into Bolton's starting lineup. Tuesday's match is a major first step toward that, one that has the American midfielder poised to complete his comeback sooner than expected.
"After tonight I feel even more confident than I did before," Holden said. "I just have to keep moving along and tonight was a huge step in terms of knowing that I can get out there and play and move around and get into those challenges without feeling any pain in my knee.
"For a first game back I'd give myself a six or six-point-five out of 10," Holden said. "The result aside, I'm pretty happy with it as a first game back."