International: Heavy schedule could be Hejduk's savior

Influx of right-sided talent sends American to the bench - until the Champions League starts

Frankie Hejduk is dreaming about titles, two of them, but he should just be thankful that Bayer Leverkusen is in the chase for two. It allows him to get onto the field.

Five months after Christophe Daum plucked him from the bench and let him run wild along the right flank as Leverkusen rallied for a Champions League berth, Hejduk finds himself back on the bench.

Daum has guided the club to second-, third- and second-place finishes in three years at the helm. This year he's gotten serious, adding eight players, at $12.3 million expense, in a bid to wrest the Bundesliga title from Bayern Munich and make a favorable impression in the Champions League.

Hejduk, whose tenaciousness and boundless energy surpass his sometimes shaky ball skills, made his first start of the season Sept. 14, playing right back in Leverkusen's Champions League debut, a 1-1 tie with visiting Lazio.

Three days later, the Californian was back on the substitutes list as another tie - a 0-0 affair at Hertha Berlin - lifted Bayer to the top spot in the Bundesliga.

Think Hejduk's frustrated? No chance.

"Our team looks incredible," he enthusiastically offered two days after the Lazio clash. "We're definitely one of the top two teams in the Bundesliga. And we're really a team - all the guys really get along, and it's a solid team from the first guy to the 24th guy. An incredibly solid team.

"We'll need it this year, we play so many games: Champions League, Bundesliga, German Cup. We could easily have a 60-game season."

Thirty-four minutes in five games

Hejduk should hope so. His playing time, expanded last April when Daum unveiled his 3-2-2-3 system in time for a late Bundesliga run, has evaporated with the offseason arrival of three right-sided attackers. He's played just 34 minutes of Leverkusen's first five league games but got the full 90 minutes against Lazio.

With so many matches, Daum must utilize his depth, essentially employing two teams, to survive.

"I think we have to," Hejduk said. "You can't go out with the same guys, the same 11, every Wednesday and Saturday for the next two months. Definitely there'll be a rotation of three or four players coming in, changing every couple games."

Hejduk appears likeliest in matches Daum uses a 4-4-2, as against Lazio. He spent the last two months of last season on the front line as a right wing; Italian-Brazilian Robson Ponte, acquired on loan from Brazilian club Guarani, has occupied the spot this season.

The additions of right-sided midfielders Oliver Neuville from Hansa Rostock and Bernd Schneider from Eintracht Frankfurt leave little room in midfield for Hejduk, and Daum prefers Croatian Robert Kovac, a superior defender, at right back in the 3-2-2-3.

"I'd been used to coming off the bench," Hejduk said. "I didn't know what would happen for a Champions League game. Two weeks before, I sprained my ankle and missed practice for a week, and I didn't know where I stood. ...

"I was really happy the coach showed confidence in me, not only to start, but to start a Champions League game - especially the first game, the ice-breaker game. He showed a lot of confidence in me."

It was a tense, tactical game, with the teams exchanging goals in the first 20 minutes, then playing a safe, uneventful game the rest of the way. Hejduk helped set up the Leverkusen tally in the 14th minute, playing a one-two with Schneider, whose cross Neuville volleyed home.

Free-kick specialist Sinisa Mihajlovic pulled Lazio even four minutes later, finding the upper corner from 22 yards.

Battling elbows with Roberto Mancini

Hejduk, who went forward more in the second half than the first, was occupied most of the match by Lazio's Roberto Mancini.

"It was awesome," Hejduk reported. "He's an incredible player you can't take your eye off the whole game. You have to know what you're doing. If you get caught watching a bit, he's behind you.

"I was throwing my fair share of elbows, did my share of jersey pulling. We were both battling - he was grabbing me, I was grabbing him. It was fun.

"And the speed of play - the Bundesliga is incredibly fast, and the Champions League is even faster than that. Like, oh wow, you're getting pressured the whole game. You've got to be thinking every second of the game. You can't have a lapse where you're in LaLa Land. The whole team has to be that way. One guy makes a mistake, it costs you."

Neither '99 semifinalist Dynamo Kiev, weakened by injury and departures of pivotal personnel, nor surprising Maribor Teatanic figure to provide much of an obstacle to Lazio or Leverkusen. The top two teams advance to the second group stage.

At home, Leverkusen's tie at Hertha Berlin left it at 11 points - one more than previous leader Hamburg, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich - and the only team without a loss. Not bad considering midfielder Michael Ballack, a $4.3 million signing from Kaiserslautern, has missed all but one match with torn knee ligaments.

Ze Roberto has joined him in rehab; the Brazilian suffered torn ligaments against Hertha Berlin and will, like Ballack, be out at least until late October. That could supply more playing time for Hejduk, unless Daum wants him fresh for the Champions League campaign, or values his spark in the late going.

Twice, against Bayern Munich and VfB Stuttgart, Hejduk has entered a tie game with less than 15 minutes to play. Within two minutes, in both games, Leverkusen netted the winner.

"Every time I come in and it's tied," Hejduk beamed, "we end up winning the game."

A team needs that kind of fortune to compete for a championship, and Leverkusen's certainly a club with ambition.

"We want to, first, win the Bundesliga, and we want the same for the Champions League," Hejduk says. "We'd be satisfied with nothing less than the [Champions League] semifinals, and anytime you reach the semifinals, anything can happen.

"We want no less than that. We've got the team to do it."

by Soccer America senior editor Scott French

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