CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Friday, September 30, 2011
When John O'Brien knocked in a rebound goal against Portugal in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, he etched his name into the annals of American soccer.
Already known within soccer circles as being one of the most talented American players ever produced, he finally got the plaudits from the more mainstream fans who didn't have easy access to Ajax games in that early age of the internet or a multitude of European soccer channels.
The first American to be chosen to join Ajax's famed youth academy, O'Brien never quite got the opportunity to impress domestic fans as much as he did Dutch fans. In his seven years with Ajax, he managed only 85 appearances due to injury problems, but 2002 was his year for club and country, being a vital part of winning the Eredevisie, and helping to lead the United States to that fateful June 21 evening in Ulsan, South Korea.
While Torsten Frings became America's most hated non-Mexican player, O'Brien began the final descent of his injury prone career, playing in only two dozen more league games over the next five years, before finally announcing his retirement.
His problem was a combination of bad luck and nature, suffering from an out-of-whack spine that threw off his balance, rendering him unable to cope with the rigors of being a professional athlete. Combine that with a nearly comical series of events that led to what should have been mundane injuries, and he simply was never really able to show American fans the flashes of quality that the Amsterdammers got to see on a somewhat regular basis.
Former and current American players and staff have referred to O'Brien as being one of the best to ever don the uniform, and it's a shame that more wasn't able to be made of him. Having only just turned 34 years of age, barring the series of injuries that plagued him, O'Brien could still feasibly be leading the American midfield to this day, being the current solution to one of the many problems that has been chasing the team since Claudio Reyna's retirement.
However, the situation is what it is and the United States National Team still does not have a clear picture of what it wants to do with the central midfield. The injuries of O'Brien were unfortunate and possibly still continue to hurt, but it's the legend of the star that never was that causes us to turn our attention to Stuart Holden.
The Bolton midfielder finds himself in a startlingly similar situation to O'Brien, being a young midfield talent with a career being potentially derailed by injury. The Nigel de Jong tackle that fractured Holden's leg in 2010 was bad luck. It was a step back in a promising Premiership season, and ended his hopes for making an impact at the World Cup.
He came back for the new season, however, and was on track for finishing a stellar year for the Wanderers when he was met in a tackle by Manchester United's Jonny Evans, opening his knee. After 26 stitches, Holden was ruled out for the rest of the season, the summer, and the first several weeks of the 2011/2012 season. Despite the set back of missing the final crucial months of play, he was voted Bolton's Player of the Year.
After six months of rehabilitation, Holden returned to Bolton's reserve squad and made enough of an impression to finally be called back up to the first team. One game against Aston Villa would be all that he would play, however. A routine follow-up operation on his knee was pushed forward to the here-and-now rather than waiting until the end of the season, and Holden was ruled out for another six weeks.
The bad news came just hours later, as the operation revealed cartilage damage that would require six more months of rehabilitation, putting him out for likely all but the final handful of games for the season. When all is said and done, Holden will have played in only one first team game in a year long span, with six months before and after taken up rehabbing his knee.
While his career is not over, the bad luck with injuries has so far caused him to miss two tournaments, if we count the World Cup, and several national team camps including what will likely be four or five at least with Jurgen Klinsmann. Qualifying for Brazil may be about to get under way by the time Holden is back to form, barring any new setbacks, but the central midfield spots should definitely not be locked down by anyone else in that time. Klinsmann's continuous nods to Jose Torres showed him to be the favorite healthy playmaker over the past couple of months, but that has been derailed for the time being with Torres' foot surgery putting him out until the end of the year.
Holden may have been set to come in for the October friendlies, despite Klinsmann saying there was no rush to get him back. That potential move is busted, so the already-under-fire captain of the ship has to go back to the drawing board to find someone to steer the offense. A betting man may have put money on Mikkel Diskerud, or potentially Freddy Adu getting the opportunity, but Klinsmann's October roster revealed neither.
Instead, Danny Williams, the 21-year-old newcomer from Hoffenheim, may be getting the chance to show his versatility if he can get his passport quick enough. He's more defense oriented than Holden, Torres, Diskerud, or Adu, but that can be said for every other center midfielder on Klinsmann's roster except for Jeff Larentowicz, who hasn't made much of an impression in his limited opportunities.
All of this points to a still wide open door by the time Holden comes back from injury, so the opportunity to finally really shine with the National Team will still be there for the sweet summer months of the opening round of World Cup Qualifying, but he must regain his health and keep it. His 17 caps should be just the beginning of a long international career, and hopefully not just the midway point like it was for John O'Brien.
O'Brien's 32 caps from ‘98 to ‘06 are but a drop in the pail of what he could have and should have accomplished. Regardless of the shift of mainstream American media focus on soccer, he will likely never turn out to be a "could have been" legend of mythical proportions like Bo Jackson and Marcus Dupree, or Marco van Basten, the three time European Player of the Year who had to stop playing at age 27 due to injury. But we'll unfortunately never know how good O'Brien could have been, if he had the good fortune of staying healthy.
With the talent that Stuart Holden has and the potential to turn himself into an impact player for the next cycle and beyond, everyone can only hope that he stays off the path of John O'Brien, and stays healthy enough, long enough, to have more than one shining moment to etch himself into the annals of American soccer.