Stu Holden Believes The USMNT Won’t Be ‘Afraid Of The Big Moment’ Ahead Of The World Cup

The World Cup kicks off in Qatar in less than three weeks. This means that the United States men’s national team’s return to the World Cup after missing out in 2018 is on the horizon, and while it’s an exciting time for the beautiful game in the country, there are, understandably, some nerves. The squad hasn’t exactly looked stellar in its most recent friendlies ahead of the biggest tournament in the world, while injuries and struggles with finding form at the club level are coming at the worst possible time for some important contributors ahead of a very, very tricky group comprised of England, Iran, and Wales.

So, when asked how he’s feeling about the team as an ex-USMNT player heading into the World Cup, Fox Sports analyst Stu Holden grabs a cup, starts shaking his hand, and lets his voice get a little nervous.

“Yeah,” he says, “I’m feeling great.”

But despite the concerns that seem to be common during conversations with, well, just about anyone who has a vested interest in the team’s ability to perform in Qatar, Holden — who is quick to say he thinks the team will show up when it’s go time — is excited about where soccer in the United States is going. This goes beyond the USMNT participating in the World Cup with the youngest roster at the tournament — everything from the continued success of the women’s team, to the growth of the country’s numerous domestic leagues, to just how big the game is at the grassroots level plays a role in making sure the most popular sport in the world continues to become more and more popular stateside.

Now, Holden hopes to help spur those efforts, particularly at the grassroots level, through his partnership with Italian brand Lotto, which recently brought him on board as an ambassador. It was through Lotto that Uproxx Sports got the chance to sit down with Holden to discuss how soccer can continue to grow in America, the USMNT at the World Cup, and much more.

What do you have going on with Lotto?

I’m incredibly excited. When the Lotto partnership came about, I think … I retired and started this next chapter and career as a broadcaster, and also as a dad that’s out at the soccer fields every weekend and seeing young players starting their journey and thinking back to my journey, and one that actually started with Lotto when I was six years old wearing Lotto cleats. I think one of the most important things is to be able to give back to that next generation through my expertise, my coaching, but then also getting involved at the grassroots level. That was one of the things that spoke to me most about this partnership and excites me now, of us building this journey and being able to get involved at the grassroots level and be a part of kids’ journeys through soccer, and what soccer does for your life, what it’s given me in my life.

My role now as an ambassador is to be front-facing, to be involved in campaigns, but also through my social media, to continue to ride this wave of momentum of soccer in this country. And I think that Lotto’s mission of doing that from the grassroots in a really authentic and calculated and driven way, it got me really excited. And so for me now, day one of this partnership — well, not day one, we’ve been working together for a couple of weeks and months now — but I’m excited of the endless possibilities and the ways in which we can make a difference.

Why did you decide you wanted to team up with Lotto? Was it because, like you mentioned, you’ve been wearing them since you were six years old? Was it because of that commitment to grassroots soccer in the United States? Or was it just a bunch of different factors all came together that made this perfect for you?

Yeah, you know what’s been so fun? I’ve been wearing the hoodie and the gear around, and everybody points it out. Like, even here at Fox, everybody’s like, “Oh, look at that. Look at that old school Lotto sweatshirt.” And I think one of the fun parts about getting involved with Lotto was the nostalgic factor for me, and that I had a history with them, but also now, a brand that wants to be at the forefront of soccer in this country, and using its influence, using its history, but then also being open to doing new things. And that was one of the big conversations that we had, and that’s why I’m excited personally, is that there’s opportunity to execute on ideas that I have, and they’re very much a two-way street of like, “Hey, what do you think we should be doing? How can we make a difference in soccer in this country? How can we be at the forefront and be a part of this movement of the game?”

Lotto has such a rich history in Europe and in Italy, the manufacturing of boots going back years and years. But now, to be that brand that’s really in the conversation when you think about soccer at the grassroots level all the way up to the professional level. So, that’s what excites me is that there’s this carte blanche, but with this massive history behind it, and an ability to do some fun and exciting things. So, a lot to come now in the next couple of years.

What are some of these ideas to get involved in the grassroots level of soccer that you have? Because it’s one thing we hear all the time, AYSO is the biggest youth sports organization in the United States. And yet, by the time a kid becomes 13, 14 15, they’re playing basketball, football, baseball, whatever else. So what are these ideas to really help drive home that soccer is a thing that you could do your entire childhood and into your teenage years, 20s, whatever, for those kids who are playing as a way to get exercise when they’re five and six years old?

I feel like that’s a conversation over like 15 beers. It’s one of my most passionate things that I think about. I get frustrated sometimes at the narrative around the investment and the youth soccer pathway and people saying, “We’re not doing this and we’re not doing that.” The reality is, if you look at where this country is, since 1994, and the way in which the landscape changed for a kid that was 10 years old in ’94, to now a 10 year old, thinking about the World Cup on the horizon in ’26 and the amount of professional teams that we have, the pathways to pros — I think the professional path has really improved in a really good way as investment will continue to grow.

The part that you mentioned there that I think we can still do better is the grassroots level. And that the fundamental part of that is it’s fun, and making soccer fun. I see it with my daughter — AYSO is just far too structured at times with referees, and you’ve got to have this uniform, and you’re only training once a week on a Saturday, and then if you’re not good enough, eventually you’re not going to be with your friends. I just think that we, too often, try to over-coach kids and we don’t allow kids to just be in an environment where they’re having fun, and there is some type of organization, but within that, they’re learning. Coaching is a huge part of that, I would be investing heavily in coaching.

And then when I think about Lotto, it’s doing things in a really organic way, and what I’ve learned with soccer, too, is that we’re a very loyal bunch, very passionate a bunch, very loud bunch. And at times, I think soccer can be too closed off. If you don’t know the verbiage and you don’t know a European soccer team and you don’t know this, you can’t be part of a club. We try to be too exclusive. And I think that’s why, with Lotto and talking to them, it’s fun trying to find ways in which we can welcome more people into the tent, make it more palatable and enjoyable for people to be a part of this wave and riding this momentum of soccer. Whether that’s by big events, whether that’s by doing it in a less serious soccer way and being fun and being being brave, trying new things and getting a new audience in. I think to your point, people get to 12, 13, if they’re not good enough at soccer, they don’t enjoy it, and there’s not the same type of opportunities for them to play recreationally with their friends, where it’s not fun, and then maybe you gravitate to different sports.

But now, I think you can play soccer with your buddies in a weekend league, you can go to an MLS game, you can drink some beers, you can go and have fun. It’s a community-based sport. I think that’s the part that you really want to lean into is just investing in community, invest in people. Those are going to be the people that aren’t just wearing your cleats at six, they’re going to be people that are wearing your cleats and wearing your casual gear when they’re 25.

You said in the release that “there is such great momentum around soccer in the U.S.” What are the factors that you think go into that? Because obviously there’s a pretty big factor, what, 19 days away now?

Yeah, World Cups are the time — and we talked about this here at Fox Sports, too — that the America watches. “America” being casual sports fans, or any sports fan, will watch the World Cup. The numbers back that too. And then especially, they’ll watch the World Cup with the United States, and that’s where you really have this momentum. You talk to half of this team right now, and we’ve done this in the past couple of weeks, about where did they fall in love with the game, where was the moment where they thought, like, “this is what I want to do professionally.” And maybe they were 10, 11 years old, and they might have been when the U.S. was playing in 2014, eight years ago.

It’s World Cups. They remember the Landon Donovan goal, they remember Jermaine Jones against Portugal in 2014. These are opportunities for us as broadcasters, us as fans of soccer, as players that are on the field, these are the opportunities to bring people in and help them understand our game, and also realize why the sport is so special and why it’s such a global sport, but also why in the United States, it’s such a such a thriving and growing sport. And that’s where the momentum comes — we’re gonna have the youngest team at the World Cup. MLS is verging on 29 teams. We have 3-4 tiers of professional soccer in this country now that have been going on for more than two decades. And youth participation is up, the women’s team is doing well, NWSL is crushing it right now, they almost had a million viewers for their championship game.

I can sit here and point to all the different demographics and stats that back up the fact that it’s undeniable that soccer is growing here. And I think with that also, one of the things that Americans love is being the best — we’re the best at basketball, best at football, best in baseball, and that’s why we, maybe a little arrogantly, crown ourselves world champions. But we don’t call ourselves world champions in soccer because we’re not the best yet. And I think that that’s what American sports fans would want to see is that we’re making real progress on the global stage as a soccer nation, and that’s why my hope is that this U.S. team turns up in in Qatar and make some noise and gives the people back home something to really be proud of.

Great segue into, how are you feeling about the U.S. heading into the World Cup? Because on one side, we’ve seen what this team can do in knockout tournaments, we’ve seen what they look like at their best, the level of club team the guys are at. And then there’s the U.S. fan anxiety that’s popped up over the last few friendlies, that sort of thing. So how are you generally feeling heading into this?

Yeah, I’m feeling great. [Laughs.] I’m uneasy about the team’s standing. I don’t think I could stand here off the back of the last couple months and the injuries we’ve had, too, and tell you that I’m overly confident about this team making a deep run. I called that last game against Saudi Arabia. And one of the hardest parts of my job is to have perspective. And I think that that’s the most important part of my job, too, is to be able to convey not only what are you seeing on the field, but also being able to maintain a level head when it comes to overreaction, underreaction, am I protecting the team, am I not? Also, being honest with the emotions that I’m feeling, too, in that game, and I found myself in the second half of that game not fully panicking, but also being like, this should not give you confidence about this team, and if it is, then I think you’re blindly confident about this U.S. team.

Take a step back, if we have our starting XI, and that’s a big if because McKennie’s injured right now, and Pulisic and Josh Sargent, yada yada, I do feel still confident that this team will get out of the group. I think we have enough talent. I believe that Gregg Berhalter’s shown an ability in big tournaments and big moments — not in a World Cup, of course, this will be his first — but I think this team is self confident and whatever the narrative is going to be going in, they will use that to their advantage. And maybe in some ways, I think this could help them, the fact that people are asking more questions now than maybe they were when they had this supreme optimism about a team that rinsed Mexico four times in a calendar year, and won the Gold Cup, and won the Nation’s League. There were people starting to talk about the semi-finals for this U.S. team. I don’t think that’s realistic, and in fact, I think that would be detrimental to the team if that was what you were saying going in as an expectation.

So, get out of the group, believe in yourself. Beat Wales, that’s what this team needs to focus on now. And that’s what their sole focus should be on, is starting the tournament with three points. If they start well against Wales, start to fire up that rocketship a little bit, and you think that you go against England and see what you could do. But yeah, as it stands right now, I’m not willing to like, sit here and say everything’s fine, because it’s not, there’s certainly alarm bells ringing. But maybe they use that to an advantage.

At the same time, you see those games against Mexico that you mentioned, or when they had a chance to basically clinch in qualifying against Panama, when these guys have needed to show up and perform on a big stage, I would say we’ve seen them do that at a level maybe a little bit above what we expect of them.

And that’s 100 percent my mentality and my reasoning and why I get to where I get. I have confidence in this team, there’s a blind arrogance at times to them, in a good way. Like, they don’t feel afraid of the big moment. And I believe that when the U.S., as I said, when they play Wales, one of my things I’ve been talking about recently is that — I felt this as a player, too — my first World Cup match, the lights are brighter, the stage is bigger. And you can react in one of two ways: You can harness that energy and that nervousness and those butterflies that they will inevitably feel. I don’t care if you’re Superman, it’s human, just a natural emotion to feel nervousness in that moment.

But once that whistle goes, and that game starts, can they flip that switch? And I think they can, like our teams of the past. In 2010, we did that, we weren’t overcome by that moment. And I think that this team, too, they will do the same. They’ll stand tall and they’ll represent that flag in the way in which they should, and that’s why I think that this team will be okay, and that they’ll use that in a way of like, “Look, nobody believed that we could do this anyways, as a group of 19, 20 year olds. We’re gonna be the youngest team here, we’re free rolling, let’s go kick some ass.”

As you look at this team, as you look at the roster construction and how they want to play, their group, all that stuff, what’s the thing that you would say you’re most confident about heading into the World Cup and the thing you’re most concerned about heading into the World Cup?

I’m most confident in our midfield. I think that we have an extremely, extremely good midfield, and not just by American standards, by global standards. We’re gonna have a guy who’s playing at Leeds, a guy who plays at Juventus, and a guy who plays at Valencia. Never had that in our past. I think that’s the strength of this team, I think that will be the heartbeat of this team, I think this team will go as far as that group can take it.

My biggest concern is — in fact, I was thinking about this this morning — it’s changed from the striker position because I think we can get goals from wide from Pulisic, and Weah, and Reyna. I’m concerned about our backline in that we’re probably Walker Zimmerman, Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, and then a center back. And I don’t feel confident in who that center back will be. I don’t know if it’s going to be a surprise name like Tim Ream, or is it going to be Aaron Long, is it going to be Cameron Carter-Vickers? I think about the fact that that center back pairing won’t have had a consistent amount of games with whoever the goalkeeper is going to be if it’s Matt Turner.

So, that’s my biggest concern is that defensively, I don’t think we’re as strong as people maybe felt we were going back a year, two years ago, and that this team won’t have had the same type of reps. Walker Zimmerman’s probably your shoe-in center back, he won’t have play a game for 30-something days before the U.S. step on the field against Wales. That, for me, is a concern. I don’t care what you’re doing right now in this training camp in Dallas, you’re not going to be as sharp as you were when you were playing a game week in, week out at a very high level, like the European guys will be doing.

Going off of that, you gave what I would assume are — between those three midfielders, a couple of the options at on the wing — some guys who would make up your first-choice XI. So, in a perfect world, all guys are healthy and in form, could I get Stu Holden’s first-choice XI if they’re heading into that Iran game and Gregg Berhalter says “We need three points, Stu, who you throwing out there?”

Chris Richards is one, I don’t know if he’s gonna make it but I’d like him to start. I would say I have Matt Turner in goal. I would have Sergio Dest as my right back. I would have Walker Zimmerman, then I would have Chris Richards. I would have Antonee Robinson. I would have Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah. This is where it gets hard. Christian Pulisic, for sure, I want Brenden Aaronson out there. And then a striker … can I have Clint Dempsey?

You put the names in a hat for strikers and it’s the one you pull out on a given day.

If I had to play a guy in that game, it’s do I want to be safe or do I want to just roll with it? I think I’m going with Ricardo Pepi.

Interesting, ok.

Yeah, but that was reluctant, too.

I think when when you look at his recent form, but at the same time, if you’re going off of form, then you’ve got to put Josh Sargent. But in my opinion, when we have seen Pepi at his best in qualifying, he just seems to have that little spark about him, you know?

Yeah. I would consider even playing Tim Weah there, I would consider playing Brenden Aaronson as a false nine and playing Tim Weah on the right. But I just think that I would play Pepi just because I think that he’s gonna scrap, and he’s a physical presence up there that also, as you said, can produce kind of that lightning in the bottle-type finish. It shows you he was smart to drop down a level to the Eredivisie and score goals, because it gives you confidence as a striker. So, that confidence changes the picture completely. Two months ago, I don’t even know if I would have had him in the squad.

As much as I think we’d all love to see the U.S. win, I’m a little skeptical they’ll be able to do that this time around. So, who do you got winning the whole thing?



My Fox Sports hat, too, would love that. Messi, best player in the world — I’ve got a power ranking coming out right now, I’ve got Mbappe just ahead of Messi, but Messi’s recent form would have maybe, potentially, have him back above him there.

Argentina, I think this is the best supporting cast he’s had from a collective, team perspective. I think they’ve got a great coach in Lionel Scaloni. I think defensively, they’re better than they’ve ever been. And I think the table is set for Messi to have his moment and etch his name on that trophy and become the greatest of all time. The game is different than it was with Pele and Maradona, and to win a World Cup is incredibly hard. And to do it in today’s era, with the way that the game is, man, it would be it would be a World Cup for the ages.

We’re all romantics about the sport and nothing’s more romantic than Messi winning.