Jon Super

Associated Press

Stuart Holden was injured in March while playing for Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League.

More than three months have passed since Stuart Holden looked down at a gash on his knee and saw through to the bone.

“Not again,” Holden thought to himself in the moments following Manchester United defender Jonny Evans’s studs-up challenge in an English Premier League game on March 19. “It’s only a cut. It’ll be okay.”

That optimism was dashed when the doctor showed up on Holden’s doorstep the next day. A second straight major injury, this one a broken bone in his left knee that required surgery. Out six months. Season over. No Gold Cup.

The 25-year-old midfielder, who had been enjoying a standout season with the Bolton Wanderers and is seen as a key component to the future of the U.S. men’s national team, began the round of phone calls to family and friends. As he did, each conversation grew harder. Finally, he broke down.

“I felt bad for myself and felt sorry for myself,” Holden said. “And was like, ‘Oh God, things were going so well.’ After I had that moment, the next day I was all about, ‘All right, let’s get the surgery, let’s get moving, let’s get going forward.’ Because every day is a step closer to playing.”

Holden’s ever-present smile was back last Friday at one of his final rehabilitation sessions in the United States, interrupted only briefly by a determined grimace when he pushed through exercises.

In a clinic tucked away inside a Jewish community center here, Holden continued the progress he has made with U.S. men’s national team trainer James Hashimoto to return from the devastating tackle that ended his breakout campaign with Bolton. The injury also postponed what Holden had hoped would be a similar coming-out with the U.S. national team in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Holden said the injury was so severe that a screw was inserted into his knee during the surgery. He was on crutches for 12 weeks and couldn’t put any weight on the knee.

Now, although Holden is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, according to Hashimoto, the midfielder isn’t willing to rush back to the field until he’s ready. Holden originally set mid-September as a return target — exactly six months after the injury — but he might not be back in action until October.

Road back takes hard work

Last Friday, Holden showed off some of his progress.

Doing stretching and manual therapy on a training table, Holden worked to strengthen the muscles around the injury. After more than 30 minutes on the table — with Holden’s requested country music soundtrack playing in the background — he moved to an anti-gravity treadmill, where he alternately walked and jogged while applying varying levels of weight on the knee.

“Getting the swelling down and range of motion is number one [priority],” Hashimoto said. “This type of injury you’re always walking a thin line of how much is too much, and how much is too little. You want to get stuff going in the right direction but you don’t want it to slow you down.”

Rehabilitation sessions have become an unwelcome chore for Holden, as evidenced by his vast collection of scars.

There’s the long mark down his right calf from a broken leg in 2010, a blemish marking his sports hernia surgery in 2008, and the most recent additions: a scar on the front of his left leg from the March gash that required 26 stitches, plus a three-inch scar on the back of his knee from the surgical procedure.

Those marks serve not just as souvenirs of the roadblocks Holden has encountered during his career — he also suffered a fractured eye socket in an unprovoked attack outside a nightclub in 2005, and shortly thereafter a broken ankle when on trial with Leicester — but also as examples for why he remains so optimistic about his future, both with club and country. This is nothing new.

“I look back and people have reminded me a hundred times, ‘You’ve come back stronger from every single one,’ ” Holden said. “There’s something positive come from every injury. It’s a terrible habit I’m getting into, but I have to maintain the belief I’ll come back faster, stronger and a better player.”

A future in the spotlight?

Holden, who was born in Scotland, moved to Houston at age 10 and became a U.S. citizen in 2006, made his debut with the senior U.S. national team at the 2009 Gold Cup. His performance there — he scored two goals — and in games leading up to the 2010 World Cup earned Holden a roster spot despite the broken leg (suffered in a friendly against the Netherlands) that kept him out for two months leading up to the event.

The effects of that injury would limit Holden to just a few minutes on the field in South Africa — he subbed for Jozy Altidore in the 86th minute of the United States’ 1-1 draw with England — but Holden’s easygoing personality made him an integral part of the squad regardless.

One of the enduring memories from the U.S. run was Holden sliding to the corner flag as the first player to greet Landon Donovan following the midfielder’s winner against Algeria.

“That six weeks in the World Cup was probably the best six weeks of my life,” Holden said. “I think that’s still another reason maybe [U.S. Coach Bob Bradley] brought me along . . . knowing I wasn’t quite there yet but knowing I still brought something to the team off the field in motivating guys and being around the group.”

For the next cycle, however, Holden figures to play a much larger role.

The knee injury occurred just days before friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay, but was especially ill-timed as it appeared Bradley was preparing to unveil a formation that would allow Holden to play in the middle of the field, tucked behind a lone striker.

The 4-2-3-1 system would give Holden the freedom to roam with two defensive center midfielders behind him, likely a combination of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones or Maurice Edu, and with veterans Clint Dempsey and Donovan on his wings.

“That’s something Bob and I had spoken about, that going forward that could be my role,” Holden said. “Playing in the middle underneath the striker, or even one of the two [center midfielders in a 4-4-2 formation]. . . . It gets your mouth watering a little bit being able to play in that kind of formation.”

The United States struggled in the system without Holden’s attack-minded instincts in the friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay. The Americans improved upon it recently in a 2-0 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals at RFK Stadium, with Sacha Kljestan playing the central role, but still struggled to find a consistent offensive stride in the tournament, ultimately losing to Mexico, 4-2, in the final.

Left watching from the stands, Holden was frustrated he couldn’t be a part of the tournament. But his role with his country has served as the ultimate motivation to return from the latest setback.

“I’d love to lead this team through qualifying and be one of the main guys going into the next World Cup,” Holden said. “I think that’s what it’s all about.”