Three years ago the Derby man was at a career crossroads, but in 2019 the American-born, England-raised midfielder has taken his game to new heights
Duane Holmes is in the midst of the kind of year he could only have dreamed of as recently as three years ago.
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Fresh off a breakout season at Derby County, and ready to take part in his first international tournament as part of the U.S. national team, Holmes is enjoying the type of success that once looked like it might elude him if not for his determination and refusal to let setbacks stop him.
USMNT fans seeing Holmes in action for the first time in his recent national team debut saw a player at the height of his game, a quick and tenacious attacking midfielder. What most of those fans don’t know is the hurdles Holmes has cleared in his career to reach this new high point, which now finds him preparing to play in the Concacaf Gold Cup as a potential breakout player for the United States.
It was the summer of 2016, and Holmes was out of work. Cut loose by Huddersfield Town, Holmes spent three months in career limbo, uncertain about his future and faced with the grim prospects of considering a different career path if an opportunity didn’t come along.
“When I got released by Huddersfield it was a massive wake-up call to me,” Holmes told Goal. “When that realization hit when I was leaving the training ground that I needed a job basically.”
Almost three months went by from the day Holmes left Huddersfield to the day Holmes received a fateful phone call from then-Scunthorpe United manager Graham Alexander offering him a lifeline and opportunity in the English third division.
“I did have a conversation with my mum about how long I would leave it before I’d have to start maybe looking at going to the conference, or non-league football or take up a university course,” Holmes said. “That’s when I got the call from Graham Alexander, it was a no-brainer.
“I had a point to prove, I felt I was good enough to play (at Huddersfield), and in that division, but I decided to take a step down in leagues and just go and prove myself and get games,” Holmes said. “I got a manager that trusted me and gave me every chance in the world. I owe a lot to him.”
Holmes thrived at Scunthorpe under Alexander, especially in his second season at the club. He amassed nine goals and five assists in all competitions, playing in 54 matches and performing well enough to catch the attention of Derby County and their new manager, Frank Lampard.
“There were other offers on the table earlier in the transfer window, but my agent told him to wait, then Derby came along,” Holmes said. “Frank (Lampard), obviously with the career he had, you can’t get a better educator if you want to play in the middle of the pitch so it was a no-brainer when that offer came.”
After a tough beginning to his time at Derby, Holmes perservered and played his way into a more regular role, eventually becoming a regular starter during the second half of the season as he helped Derby reach the League Championship playoff final, where the Rams lost to Aston Villa.
“He’s helped me mix up my game a lot,” Holmes said of Lampard. “I used to hold on to the ball a bit too long and stuff like that. He’s always trying to tell me when to dribble, when to pass, when to hit a long ball and short ball, and where to be on the field. He knows better than most midfielders in the history of the game how to arrive into the box.”
Holmes showed glimpses of that improved game in his first two appearances for the United States. He was one of the few bright spots in the team’s 1-0 loss to Jamaica, and also showed well in a 45-minute shift the team’s recent 3-0 loss to Venezuela.
“Duane performed well,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the Jamaica friendly. “What you see from him is what you saw at Derby County. He has mobility and aggressiveness, but he also has good technical ability in tight spaces. I thought he did well coming off the bench.”
An attacking midfielder who can also play on the wing, Holmes has good attacking qualities, but he also has a physicality to his game that belies his 5-foot-7 frame and attacking role.
“I feel like you’ve got to have a bit of bite in your game, especially since Im not a big lad,” Holmes said. “I’m not scared to get in amongst it and I feel like everyone needs a bit of that in a game. You can’t just walk through a game without putting in a tackle or leaving a bit on someone at times.”
Though he was raised in England since the age of 4, Holmes wasn’t a dual national who U.S. Soccer had to go and recruit. Playing for the USMNT was something Holmes has wanted to do for a long time, long before the first call came from the U.S. national team.
“I’ve always told my mom that I wanted to play for America, and represent the country where I’m from so it’s always been an ambition of mine,” Holmes said. “I remember going to watch the USA versus Scotland a fair few years ago and that’s when it hit home that it was something I could do.”
Holmes found out about his first national team call-up in, of all places, the movie theatre. He was watching Avengers: Endgame with his girlfriend when an unfamiliar U.S. phone number flashed on his phone. He answered it and heard Berhalter on the other line.
“I was like ‘Oh my word’, I ran out of the cinema and just got really excited,” Holmes said. “I was in shock.”
Berhalter’s phone call left Holmes so stunned he couldn’t sit still at the theatre after the call ended, and left early to celebrate the news and contemplate the realization of a dream.
Though his USMNT debut came in a loss, it was still a special day, not just because it was his first match in a USA uniform, but also because his father — who lives in Georgia — was able to go to the match and see Holmes play in person for the first time since Holmes became a professional.
“He was just proud as punch,” Holmes said. ” He shed a few tears, and wore my jersey, and sat outside the team hotel waiting for everyone to sign it. He’s been a proper fan, which is nice.”
Holmes’ father should get a few more chances to see his son play in person this summer, as the USMNT embarks on trying to defend its Gold Cup title. Though he is still relatively new to the U.S. national team, Holmes has already made a strong early impression, and could play his way into a leading role. That would be a fitting end to a chapter of his career that already had a movie-like feel to it.