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 Thursday, January 17, 2002 15:37 EST

Crunch time for Hejduk

By Marc Connolly [ABC Sports Online]

What happened to Frankie Hejduk?

Seriously. Where's he been? Why is he staying at Bayer Leverkusen, one of the best clubs in the world, when he has no shot at playing? Why doesn't he just come back to MLS? That's what former teammate Landon Donovan did. (My memory is shaky, but I believe that worked out OK for the lad.)

Frankie Hejduk hopes to catch the eye of coach Bruce Arena in the CONCACAF Gold Gup.
And why hasn't he blossomed into the every-game, set-in-stone wing-back or wide midfielder that was the best American player on the field in France in '98 as a 23-year-old rising star?

So many questions about this player make him by far the most intriguing member of Bruce Arena's 28-player camp going through two-a-days out in Claremont, Calif.

Officially, it's for Gold Cup preparations for matches against South Korea (Jan. 19) and Cuba (Jan. 21) in group play. Unofficially, this is a tryout for some, and a last-gasp effort for others in hopes of remaining in Arena's player pool over the next four months until the final 22-man roster is set for the World Cup this summer.

No stranger to Arena or the pressures of international soccer, Hejduk falls in the last-gasp category along with perhaps only the likes of midfielder Eddie Lewis.

Speaking from his hotel room in Claremont, Hedjuk was in high spirits about his play in camp and chances on getting a fair shake, yet he realizes that it's crunch time for him to impress Arena.

It's getting close," said the 27-year-old midfielder/defender. "We still have a couple of games coming up before the World Cup. That definitely lingers on your mind a bit. You never know when it's your last chance, so I came in here thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to go full blast and whatever happens, happens.'"

The last time Hejduk wore the U.S. National Team kit was in a friendly against Brazil in a 2-1 loss last March 3 at the Rose Bowl.

Arena didn't call him in for qualification matches during the spring, as Hejduk continued to try and break into Lerverkusen's powerful lineup, until finally talking to him in Germany in hopes that he'd come back for three World Cup qualifiers and a friendly in a three-week span.

When Hejduk told Arena that he needed a break since his club season had just ended to heal his mind and body, as well as spend time with his son, Frankie Nesta, after not seeing him for six months, it appeared to be a case where he was shooting himself in the cleat.

Though he hasn't been seen ever since and was granted such a request, Hejduk said it's a decision he sticks by and that he feels all was well between him and Arena then and now over the situation.

"I think Bruce understood my decision," said Hejduk. "It wasn't too big of a problem. I don't think he minded it too much."

Arena hasn't had any stern conversations with the eclectic SoCal surfer, but Hejduk knows that his coach needs to see something from the 5-8, 155-pound speedster over the next few weeks to include him in any pre-World Cup friendlies while he's narrowing his immense player pool down to a manageable size before making his cuts.

"This might be a last-blast effort for me in his mind since I hadn't been in for awhile," said Hejduk. "So he wanted to take a look at me and say, 'Let's see how this kid looks. Maybe he does stand a chance.'"

Going against several players hungry for any sort of break that will win over the U.S. coaching staff such as Carlos Bocanegra, Dan Califf, Jeff Cunningham, Manny Lagos, Richard Mulrooney and Brian West, who haven't played too much for Arena either in training camps or in a game situation, Hejduk is one of many talented players looking for that open crack.

One of the fittest and fastest players ever to wear the U.S. uniform, he also has an advantage of having just a two-week break from club soccer as opposed to the majority of the other players in camp who haven't played since the MLS season ended three months ago.

So far, so good.

"Everything is going well," said Hejduk. "I'm on top of my game right now. I'm very happy with how it's all been. This could be it, so I'm going all out."

While seen roaming the right flank for the Yanks in the World Cup, the former UCLA All-American is now a definitive right back. It's a position currently filled by Steve Cherundolo and Tony Sanneh, yet it's a spot that can be considered one of the team's true question marks going into this critical year.

"As of right now," said Hejduk, "I've got my mind set on that being the position where I want to try to make this team at."

Cherundolo plays a similar game to Hejduk, in that they both are short but quick defenders with solid instincts in the back and have tremendous fluidity moving up the field on overlaps. Sanneh, on the other hand, is a powerful presence in the air at 6-2, 190 and is a strong tackler who can outmuscle pesky strikers, especially on set plays around the 18-yard box.

Where Hejduk excels the most, and differentiates himself from these two players, is his end-to-end play. Both Cherundolo and Sanneh are versatile enough to play midfield or in the defensive central midfield, but neither player provides the energy of a Frankie Hejduk when he's on his game, nor the offense up the flank.

Since the wing midfielder slots seem to be open (though you might pencil in John O'Brien as the left-sided flank player), perhaps it is a spot he could provide backup help for, as well - something not always a luxury Arena had in qualifying.

Whatever is the case, Hejduk knows he has qualities within his game that can help this talented -- yet brittle when a few starters are out of the mix -- team that's got its work cut out for it to prepare for the likes of Portugal, South Korea and Poland.

"I'm usually known as one of the top-five fittest guys on the team and my ability to get up and down the field (is his strong suit)," said Hejduk, looking for his 31st cap in an international career that started in 1996. "I can pretty much run all day. If that's what Bruce wants, then right on. If he wants me to hang back, I can do that too, and provide a little bit of speed on the backline."

His attitude in check, as per usual, the subject of a comment made to TEAMTalk by his coach in Germany, Klaus Toppmöller, about how he's disappointed with Hejduk's attitude and that he has accepted his fate as a second-team player was laughed off by the easy-going Californian.

I heard about that, too," he said. "I think that's a bunch of B.S. I'm one of the fittest guys on Leverkusen - we do tests all the time - and it's always been my thing to go out there and give everything. I'm known for that. Even in training. So when I saw that article, I laughed."

Proving he's not going to stand for second-team status for much longer, it sounds as though the rumored transfers surrounding Hejduk's name, including a transfer within the famed Bundesliga to Nuremberg, is something that could be a reality very soon.

"Those rumors were somewhat true," said Hejduk. "I said, 'Hey, if I'm not going to be playing here, I want to go somewhere I can play.' If it meant a loan deal, then let's try to work something out. That will be dealt with pretty soon with Leverkusen, myself and my agent. If it works out, it works out. Leverkusen could ax the deal.

"It depends on what they want to do with me. To tell the truth, I don't know either. I haven't been playing regularly in the first-team games."

As has been the case at times for other European-based Americans like Kasey Keller, Joe-Max Moore and Jovan Kirovski, not playing first-team soccer doesn't help in getting a shot with the national team, no matter what the practice level is like. So, in a way, Hejduk is pleading his case to his superiors in Deutschland.

"It's getting close to the World Cup and I'm sure Bruce wants to see me playing," he said, "so give me a chance to go somewhere and play even if it's only for six months."

Calm down. That doesn't mean he'll be flying back across the pond to suit up for a Major League Soccer team near you the way former Leverkusen teammate Landon Donovan did last March. If Hejduk goes anywhere, he "would probably just stay in Germany" since he has a year-and-a-half left on his contract and plans to honor it.

For now, though, that's for his agent and the German soccer power's legal team to figure out. All Hejduk is worrying about is catching Arena's eye and finding his niche over the next several weeks with several starters staying with their European clubs and several chances to see the pitch in a meaningful international tournament game.

"I think I still have a good chance of making the team," he said, "and as of right now everything is going as I would have hoped. But if this is it, it's it. At least I'll know I went out giving it everything I have."

Either way, all the questions about Frankie Hejduk are finally being answered.

Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online. He can be reached at marc.connolly@abc.com.

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