Countdown to Columbus: Frankie’s Back!
Steve Cherundolo being ruled out of the US-Mexico clash provides an opportunity for Marvell Wynne to finally work his way into the full national team setup. But not so fast, my friends, to quote a somewhat well known College Football pundit from the state of Florida.
For just about every notable victory the US National Team has achieved since 1997, Frankie Hejduk has been on the squad. Despite the numerous skeptics who have consistently questioned his ability in the American Football press, Hejduk has been quite possibly the most consistent American footballer over the last twelve years.
The only American to really impress at the disastrous World Cup 98 in France, he was soon bought from MLS and the Tampa Bay Mutiny by Bundesliga power Bayer Leverkusen. At World Cup 1998, Hejduk almost single handily turned the opening match of the tournament for the United States, against Germany in the Americans favor.
The US had been badly outclassed in the first half of the match, reminding everyone of how uncompetitive the United States was at Italia 90. Coach Steve Sampson inserted Hejduk into the match at halftime replacing Mike Burns as a holding midfielder in Sampson’s peculiar 3-6-1 formation. For the next 20 minutes Hejduk and Cobi Jones ran wild exploiting the Germans lack of speed and athleticism until Jurgen Klinsmann scored a counter attacking goal against the run of play to clinch a 2-0 German victory.
The US crashed out of the 1998 World Cup, but a foundation was laid for the future. When Bruce Arena took over for the fired Sampson, he’d lean even more heavily on Hejduk. In fact Hejduk scored against Mexico in both 1999 and 2000, two of his six career international goals.
Hejduk continued to be a key figure going forward for the US during the same time period and when David Regis stumbled in the friendlies leading up World Cup 2002, Bruce Arena inserted Frankie at left back: an unnatural position for him.
But Hejduk along with right back Tony Sanneh were indispensible. Along with Eddie Pope, John O’Brien and Claudio Reyna they formed the core of the US philosophy under Arena to “build from back” and made the 2002 World Cup squad for the US the best in the nation’s football history, or at least the best any of us recall. (I don’t want to debate about the 1930 or 1950 World Cups. It’s all speculation as to whether those teams were better than the 2002 team)
Following the 2002 World Cup, Hejduk was an on again, off again call up. Injuries took their toll and his return to MLS to play with Columbus was only partially successful. But when Hejduk suffered an injury prior to World Cup 2006 and was replaced by Chris Albright, many including myself began to wonder aloud if the US was really going to be as strong in Germany as many had hoped.
When the USSF determined winning Gold Cup 2007 was a goal for the year, Bob Bradley wisely recalled Hejduk to the national team for the first time over a year. All Frankie did was to play well enough to be named only one of two Americans to make the first team all tournament team. (Pablo Mastroeni was the other).
In 2008, Hejduk captained the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup title, and facing the biggest match of his coaching career, Bob Bradley wisely called Hejduk into National Team Camp last week. The assumption is that the 34 year old Hejduk will be invaluable playing at his home stadium and against Mexico who he has faced many times previously.
Given all he’s accomplished in his career with doubters abound, don’t be shocked if Hejduk somehow works his way onto the squad for South Africa. It would be fourth consecutive World Cup which Hejduk would be selected to play in (he was hurt in 2006), and would be a fitting conclusion to a wonderful and underappreciated National Team career.