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'Wiser' Hejduk answers the U.S. call yet again
by Ridge Mahoney, February 10th, 2009 7AM
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[USA-MEXICO COUNTDOWN] For all the major matches played by Frankie Hejduk against Mexico during more than a decade of service to the U.S. national team, he still regrets missing the big one played in his backyard. "I was on the bench, freezing my butt off," he recalls of the 2001 Hexagonal opener played in Columbus won by the USA, 2-0. "It's a lot better to be playing in those games than watching them, so hopefully I'll be out there playing."

An injury to right back Steve Cherundolo moves Hejduk into a probable starting spot against Mexico at the same locale, Columbus Crew Stadium, on Wednesday as the teams again kick off the Hexagonal against each other. As one of two Crew players on the U.S. roster - midfielder Robbie Rogers is the other - and fresh off a 2008 MLS Cup triumph in November capped by a Hejduk goal, he's been besieged by interview requests.

"Yeah, I'm doing a lot of that," he laughs, "probably more than I've ever done before. All the local TV stations have been out to our practices, there are a lot of writers here, and all of that's great. It shows how far the sport has come in our country, and it shows how far the city of Columbus has come.

"It's a big game for America and here we are right in the heart of America, and the game sells out in 90 minutes. Years and years ago, who would have thought that?"

During those years he's lined up numerous times against Mexico: most famously, the 2002 World Cup triumph, but also a 2005 qualifier, again in Columbus and again a 2-0 victory that clinched qualification for the 2006 World Cup. One of his six international goals (in 81 appearances) came in a 2000 friendly against Mexico at the Meadowlands.

He's the only member of the current player pool to face Mexico in the most notorious meeting, the 1998 Gold Cup semifinal at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Abuse and debris rained down on the Americans who lost, 1-0, to a Luis Hernandez goal.

"Yeah, we don't want to go through that again, and I think U.S. Soccer tactically has done a great job putting this game where we'll have a pro-American crowd," he says. "It's not any secret why they've done it. We've done well here and the crowd is behind us. The game means a lot to both cultures and there's a lot of pressure on the Mexican players to not lose to the U.S."

Hejduk, 34, hasn't played a competitive match since that MLS Cup, and didn't attend the first phase of the 2009 campaign: a long training camp at Home Depot Center and a Jan. 24 friendly against Sweden, which the USA won, 3-2. If Coach Bob Bradley does hand the start to Hejduk, he'll be betting Hejduk's incredible fitness and energy and vast experience will offset the rust from only about a week of training against a formidable opponent brimming with pace.

Hejduk reported to the second HDC camp and jumped right into double-days, with him and Marvell Wynne, who did play against Sweden, the only choices once the extent of Cherundolo's injury became known.

"You can run on a treadmill all you want and lift all the weights you want but until you get to working on game fitness and work with the ball does it really hit you," says Hejduk. "I think Bob and the trainers have done a good job of getting me back in a quick way. The first two days were tough, and I think I've responded well, but I'm used to this. I've been doing it for a while."

Three years ago, when his chances of playing in a third World Cup were dashed by a knee injury on the day his inclusion on the squad was announced, the prospect of another seemed remote. He won't even consider looking that far ahead, not with a major challenge set right in front of him.

"I've never thought about not being around," he says of a U.S. career that dates back to December, 1996, when he scored a goal in his debut against Guatemala. "The moment you start to think about not being around, it's passed you by. I'm here and I still expect to be here and that keeps me motivated.

"The older guys tend to say that, more often than not. I don't call it older. I call it wiser."


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