DEATH, TAXES AND HEJDUK
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Sunday, April 30, 2006
There are very few certainties in life. The sun sets in the west. Time's inexorable march cannot be halted. Guinness is good for you. I will find new and inventive ways to misplace my keys, each time more quickly than the previous one.

And of course, Frankie Hejduk will be one of the 23 players on Bruce Arena's roster when the long tenured coach releases his final selection on May 2nd - something that may go against the grain of conventional wisdom.

But I don't care.

I'll take Hejduk on my side, and more importantly as a veteran leader for my side, as the old saying goes: seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

Hejduk has been a part of the USMNT side since 1998 when he scored in his first ever appearance. He then burst onto the international scene at France '98 with a performance against Germany that opened enough eyes to have Bundesliga giants Bayer Leverkusen sign him to a five-year deal.

The then-Tampa Bay Mutiny midfielder had a header on goal that was enough to launch a legion of fans out of their seats. Even though it was easily saved by German keeper Andreas Köpke, Hejduk ended up being one of the few, if not only, bright spots of the 1998 World Cup campaign.

Though lore will have you believe that Hejduk languished in the reserves and on the bench for the entire five years he was with the Bundesliga side, he joined their active roster in January of 1999 and started 10 of their last 11 matches, helping them land a Champions League 2000 spot.

The following season, he was a regular during Champions League play, but was never able to cement a place in the starting eleven. He finally did find himself with the reserves, where he would spend the next two-and-a-half years before being sent out on loan to Swiss club FC St. Gallen.

He even fell out of favor with National Team coach Bruce Arena, who didn't call him up for almost nine months, which included being left out of World Cup qualifying altogether in 2001.

Following his standout performance at the Gold Cup in early 2002, the ever persistent Hejduk was recalled for good and was eventually chosen to participate in his second World Cup, where he would become one of the most valuable cogs in the Red, White & Blue machine.

There were a lot of shocks for that first game against Portugal, and though biggest ones were goals one, two and three, the lineup that took the field was quite a surprise in itself.

What? Clint is on the bench? Who's going to fill in for Claudio?

But the most surprising of all was most certainly seeing Hejduk in at left back - and he did exactly what was asked of him.

If Arena didn't tell him, "Defend, hassle, annoy, and if you do manage to find yourself with the ball, boot it as far as you can up field - immediately!" you'd have a hard time figuring that out from watching him play.

For three matches, Hejduk filled in a void at left back that had most of the US soccer nation panicking over prior to the tournament, and he did so without a hitch, shutting down anything and everything that came his way.

Now in 2006, some people might be wondering if Hejduk deserves a place on the squad but my vote is in and has been for sometime. He's still the most fit player on the squad, along with Landon Donovan, and will probably be finishing first in the beep test (whatever that is) until 2018.

He can play both left and right back as well as right midfield, all three positions where the men's team is lacking, and could easily slot into any of the three in a crunch (literally or figurative).

As in 2002, Hejduk is once again going to be a wild card for the Americans, though this time his role is more likely to be that of seasoned veteran than starter. And more importantly a national team veteran that not only players new to the experience can look to for leadership, but those who were there with him in Korea.

Hejduk talking to Donovan before the Portugal match made for one of the most entertaining scenes of the My Way video released by US Soccer, but was also clearly a great example of the leadership that then Swiss league midfielder was capable of.

"You gotta keep those elbows high... give him one of these next time," he is shown explaining to Donovan, while motioning with his elbows.

That scene showed exactly who Hejduk is, both a great - if not extremely - likable teammate and fiery competitor.

Hejduk had already made one World Cup tour with the United States and had spent the next four years with the very side that had made Donovan the youngest American player ever signed by a European club; there's no doubt there was already a bit of camaraderie between the two.

While Hejduk had 'been there and done that', Donovan was still wet behind the ears and it's particularly a player like Donovan who needs a little encouragement from time to time – especially with the biggest game of his life just around the corner.

It's not just for veteran leadership that Arena will take along the Columbus midfielder, however. Just looking at 2002 as an example, Arena used 19 field players in five games; expect him to have the same sort of plan for June.

With lineup and tactical changes and the eventuality of yellow card suspensions, Hejduk brings a versatility to the table that few US players can match.

Though his last appearance for the national side may have left a lot to be desired, you can be sure that Arena won't be basing his selection on one match and that it would have taken a lot more from Chris Albright and his performance to displace him from Arena's selection.

There are just some players who step it up when it matters most and Hejduk has proven in two World Cups that he is one of those players.
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