CHICAGO -- When the final whistle sounded at the end of the Americans' 1-0 Gold Cup-clinching victory over Panama at Soldier Field on Sunday, the delight among the U.S. delegation was plain for all to see.
The bench poured across the touchline. Keeper Nick Rimando grabbed the ball and gleefully booted it toward the sky. Defender Clarence Goodson fell to his knees, fists pumping in the air.
The Yanks fully deserved to celebrate the title after dominating the tournament and extending their record winning streak to 11 games -- tying the best run in CONCACAF history -- but the win was still thoroughly bittersweet.
Because amid the otherwise happy scene, there was Stuart Holden in street clothes, limping around with a brace on his right knee. Holden, of course, had missed more than two years of action with the national team after suffering a devastating injury to his left knee in a Premier League game in 2011, but he had finally, triumphantly, returned to action this summer.
The Gold Cup was to be the final step in the Bolton midfielder's recovery. Holden appeared in just one of the Americans' three June World Cup qualifiers, but he started four of the second string U.S. squad's six games in this tournament, including the semis and final.
But just 19 minutes into Sunday's match, Holden's knee buckled as he planted his foot in a challenge with Canaleros midfielder Alberto Quintero, and when he stayed down on the turf, it immediately became clear that something was wrong.
"It looks like a very serious knee injury," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters after the game. "I'm not a doctor, I can't confirm it. Hopefully tomorrow things look better [when he'll] go to get an MRI and get all the tests done, but Stuey is a player that when something happens, he knows something happened. Hopefully it's not that bad, but it's not looking good right now."
Mix Diskerud replaced Holden and played well -- Klinsmann said that Diskerud had impressed enough earlier in the competition to warrant a start against Panama -- but the injury seemed to take some of the air out of the U.S. for the remainder of the first half.
"When they started doing the knee checks, that's when you really started to think it could be something bad," said defender Omar Gonzlaez, who was watching from the U.S. bench. "Just the face he had on was upsetting and very sad to see."
The Americans regrouped after the break, and another midfield substitute, Brek Shea, came on and immediately got on the end of Alejandro Bedoya's cross to give the hosts the only goal they'd need. It was yet another impact sub from Klinsmann -- Eddie Johnson came off the bench to score against Honduras last week -- and it was also Shea's second game winner of the tournament. The 23-year-old Stoke City man-child also came on and scored in the only other match that tested the U.S. during the Gold Cup -- a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the group stage finale.
"As a coach, you always think 'if I [change] something now, what would an opponent fear,'" Klinsmann said. "And you see a guy like Brek -- unpredictable for himself and for the opponent -- it is a card that you want to play."
As ugly as Panama made the game by clogging up the midfield and physically challenging the Americans at every opportunity, they didn't put one shot on Rimando's goal.
"I didn't think they were dangerous at all today," Goodson said. "Not at all."
So the Yanks got the win and the trophy, and nobody can argue that it wasn't well earned. But seeing the eternally cheery Holden smiling and waving to fans as he was carried around the field on Gonzalez's back during the Yanks' victory lap, or watching Landon Donovan help him onto the stage so he could be the first American to collect his winner's medal, you have to wonder if his teammates would gladly trade the silverware to have Holden healthy given all he's been though over the past two years.
"He's the soul of this team," Donovan said afterward. "We're bummed for him."