World Cup Qualifying: Frankie Hejduk

Frankie Hejduk, who played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups but was sidelined in 2006, has set his sights on another World Cup.
The fast-moving life of Frankie Hejduk is about to kick into overdrive, with a busy summer straight ahead and the next World Cup only a year away, and only a few people doubting he'll be wearing a USA jersey for at least the next 12 months.

He may be second choice to Steve Cherundolo to start at right back, yet as he proved once again this year in the first three games of the Hexagonal that Cherundolo missed because of a hip injury, there's nobody ready to displace him. He may be more speed than skill, and steeped with stamina instead of style, and someday his legs and lungs must give out, but it doesn't look like age will catch up just yet though he turns 35 this year.

"He's built like a marathoner, and that helps him to be able to go forever," says Revs right back Chris Albright, who plays the same position for his club and has lined up at right back for the USA as well. "He's obviously broken beep-test machines before. That being said, he's also one of the toughest guys on the field as well at a buck-fifty (150 pounds) or whatever he is. I don't want to be selling him short, but he's tough and his personality just plays into being successful. People who are around Frank know he has an incredible energy around him, he's a riot, and all that stuff just feeds into how he plays the game."

For the record, Hejduk is 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, give or take a few espressos, of which he consumes at least a half-dozen just about every day. That heavy caffeine consumption might explain some of his manic energy, but in his youth, long before he got hooked on the bean, keeping busy was his forte.

"I was never not doing something," says Hejduk of growing up in the Southern California beach community of Cardiff, about 20 miles north of San Diego, and renowned as a paradise of waves, sand, sun and sky. "I was always kicking a ball in front of the yard, or surfing, or playing basketball or whatever it was. I was never chillin'."

Regardless of how much Hejduk plays this month in two Hexagonal qualifiers (June 3 at Costa Rica, June 6 against Honduras in Chicago) and the Confederations Cup, or next month in the Gold Cup, the chances are good he'll be named to his fourth World Cup roster by U.S. head coach Bob Bradley next year.

To some observers, Hejduk epitomizes what's wrong with the national team program, that a player of limited skill and ponderous touch (by international standards) can keep a place in the national team pool. Yet what he also personifies is a spirit, drive and determination also required to square off against the world's best, and an unquestioning, selfless loyalty.

"Wherever the coach needed me, that's where I'd line up and where I tried to excel," he says of his days at UCLA that morphed into a long pro career. "If it was a midfielder in a 4-4-2, I tried to do the best I could there. It's their job to say, 'Does this work, or doesn't it?' It's the same thing as a right back, or when I played in a 3-5-2 and just ran the wing. I never really said, 'This is my set position, this is where I'm going to play.' I just did the best job I could wherever the coach put me."

There's more than talent and ability to being a good player. Attitude is one reason he's played more than 200 club matches in the USA and Germany, and with 84 caps, could hit the century mark if he sticks around for another year or so.

During a four-year stint in Germany (1998-2002) with Bayer Leverkusen, he often lined up as an attacker, deployed to the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation that, looking back, featured some outstanding players.

He ticks off a remarkable list of teammates: Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Oliver Neville, Jens Novotny, Ulf Kirsten (Germany); Lucio, Juan, Emerson, Ze Roberto (Brazil), Dimitar Berbatov (Bulgaria), Diego Placente (Argentina). If they hadn't already, all would eventually play for their countries.

"I used to play with Berbatov in the reserves," he says of the striker who has played for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United the past few years. "If you didn't play the first-team game, you played on the reserve team. I can't believe it when I look back at it now. These guys were some of the best players around, not just good players, but the best players."

He had drawn notice from Leverkusen and other clubs during an otherwise grim performance by the U.S. at the 1998 World Cup in France. In the opening game against Germany, the first of three straight losses, he came on as a sub and dashed fearlessly into the penalty area to drill a header German keeper Andy Koepke just managed to deflect.

That earned him a starting spot in the next two games from head coach Steve Sampson, who 18 months earlier had suspended him for missing a team bus departure to catch a plane to China for a pair of friendlies. He played only one subsequent game in 1997 and none of the 10 Hexagonal matches, yet earned a spot back by playing well in the 1998 Gold Cup.

With just three seasons of experience in MLS (50 games) playing for Tampa Bay, Hejduk elected to make the move to Leverkusen when his contract expired at the end of the year. He was 24, married, with a newly born son, and absolutely unaware of what he was getting himself into.

"It really was overwhelming," he remembers. "I was a young kid, I just had a kid, I just wasn't prepared. You're literally fighting for a job over there and guys are getting angry if they're not playing. I didn't really get that side of it. They all knew the drill over there, and I didn't know the drill."

German media poured all over the American surfer dude. One magazine featured an image of Hejduk riding a surfboard on a wave crashing over the edge of the BayArena, the team's stadium, and on the occasion of him scoring his only Bundesliga goal, clips of him celebrating with Kirsten and their teammates with mock surfing poses were replayed for weeks.

"I actually tried to cross it," he says. 'It got deflected, but I got ahold of it pretty well and it hit the guy in the back and went in."

The good bounces in Germany were few and far between for Hejduk, who played just 19 league games and a few European matches in three and a half seasons. The novelty of his image and personality wore off, and after the first season he dropped out of the first 18, only rarely earning a spot on the field or on the bench.

"I wasn't ready for it," he admits. "I didn't understand what it took. Here I was, this beach guy, surfing in California and all that. I didn't understand how professional it was over there, and how intense, and what I didn't know about the game, and the life, and the traveling. All that was just a little bit over the top for me at the time and I wasn't prepared."

During the 2001-02 German winter break he played every minute in the Gold Cup tournament and assisted a goal by Josh Wolff in the final to solidify a spot on the 2002 World Cup squad, during which he played four of five games. After a half-season in Switzerland with St. Gallen, he returned to MLS with Columbus, one of the MLS cities with very limited opportunities for surfing.

"That's OK, I'll deal with it," he said at the time. "There are a few things more important in my life right now."

He's held his place in the Crew lineup and the national team pool ever since, astounding teammates, opponents, coaches, fans     and journalists by relentlessly racing up and down the right flank to knock balls into the box or chase down attackers. His desire to play in the 2010 World Cup intensified when a torn ACL knocked him out of the 2006 tournament just a few weeks before it started.

"As long as I can still compete at the highest level, whether it be with the national team or MLS, I want to try to do that for as long as I can," he says. "As a competitor you want to compete against the best and you're going to find the best in World Cups.

"I did use that as motivation during the time, definitely. That's one of the worst times to get an injury but you have to set goals for yourself when you have those injuries, and one of the goals I set was to be on the 2010 team and to keep going as long as I can and get in shape and stay in shape."

He made it to Germany for the 2006 World Cup as a spectator, taking his son Nesta and reliving some of his good memories of Leverkusen and German soccer. It also gave him a chance to use some of the German he wished he'd taken up sooner when he arrived the first time.

"That was a really tough barrier for me," he says. "I should have learned it earlier, maybe before I even went over there. It took me six months to break into the lineup and some of that was the language. You don't know what the coach is saying, you don't know what the players are saying, or what a drill is. He's saying play two-touch and you think it's all-in, he says all-in and you think it's two-touch."

With the USA and Bradley, Hejduk knows the drill. He played in front of his hometown fans in February as the U.S. beat Mexico, 2-0, in the Hexagonal opener, and got the call again for games two and three when Cherundolo's hip didn't heal in time.

In the Hexagonal match against El Salvador March 28, he encountered the risks and rewards of high-level competition and in particular, playing as a right back. In the 72nd minute, Cristian Castillo came barreling into the box at the far post being guarded by Hejduk and overpowered him to head home a Rodolfo Zelaya cross for a 2-0 lead. Game over? Not quite.

"That's kind of been my bread and butter throughout my career, battling and running and fighting," he says.

Hejduk and his teammates kept fighting. He raced up the right wing five minutes later to provide a cross that Jozy Altidore put away to cut the deficit in half, and in the 89th minute, when the ball popped loose during goalmouth scramble, he knocked it into the net. The match ended, 2-2, and another entry in the remarkable career of Frankie Hejduk had been logged.

So why even think about ending it? Why muse about where the incredible conditioning stems from: active youth, or an athletic mom, or a 6-foot-4, 240-pound father who grew up in New York, played a lot of basketball, and once coached a young Lew Alcindor. Why not just ride the wave for as long as possible?

He says, "People ask me when I'm going to retire, and I say, 'Why would I want to retire?' I'm having fun, I'm still competitive, I'm still enjoying the game, I still enjoy being out there, and I'm still playing at a high level. Why would I want to retire?"

(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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