Speed merchant of Columbus
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Frankie Hejduk's first official duty for the Columbus Crew wasn't an easy one.
"He was our coffeemaker in Portugal," said coach Greg Andrulis. "He ran the espresso machine."
Hejduk will gladly make a latte for Eric Denton any day over what he was doing before coming back to Major League Soccer this offseason.
Stuck on the bench for a horrible St. Gallen side in Switzerland this past fall, the 28-year-old defender is just relieved that such a depressing portion of his soccer career is over.
"It was just bad timing," said Hejduk. "I was coming off a high from the World Cup and I wanted to play, which wasn't going to happen at Leverkusen. I figured that the worst that could happen was that I'd get some games and add some more experience and then six months later I could go somewhere else."
Things soured quickly for the Cardiff, Calif., native. The coach who wanted him there, Gerard Castella, got fired two games into Hejduk's stay, and was replaced by Thomas Staub. Hejduk said that Staub took a whole different attitude than Castella did, feeling that a new player should have to work his way onto the team and not just take over a position.
"So I found myself on the bench again," said the veteran of the last two U.S. World Cup squads. "I didn't go there to sit on the bench. I could have done that at Leverkusen."
Then, to put it mildly, all hell broke loose.
The losses piled up, as did the team's financial woes. It all culminated in an embarrassing 11-3 defeat that set a record for the number of goals conceded in Switzerland's first division, the Nationalliga. All this and Hejduk was fighting to see time on the field. He was outraged.
"I was obviously pissed," he said. "And I pretty much let them know that."
As soon as talks started between MLS, where he played for the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny from 1996 to 1998, the Columbus Crew were interested.
With the skill sets Hejduk has to offer, he was considered a perfect fit by Andrulis and his coaching staff.
"One thing we identified in the offseason was to try to get more options to attack," he said. "And Frankie is clearly one of the guys who can play on both sides of the ball very well."
Hejduk's signing with the league is now official after over a month of ironing out some details and getting clearance from FIFA, and he's already giving Columbus a different look.
With him slotted in as the team's right back, the Crew have seemingly pushed up Brian West on the right flank into a hybrid wing/midfielder role to allow Hejduk more room to operate as far as getting forward into the attack.
"That's one of my attributes," he said. "Coach Andrulis has pretty much given me the green light. That's one of the things they wanted to add to their game and one of the reasons they acquired me. I'll try and get forward and make it hell for the left midfielder."
That's a good way of putting it. In fact, Hejduk's work rate is so strong that it's tiring even watching him, nevermind trying to get by him or contain him on an overlap.
And the thing is, he's going as strong in the 90th minute as in the first. That's one of the reasons why Bruce Arena turned to him when he needed a left back for the World Cup, which he did when Greg Vanney went down in a friendly against Jamaica just a few weeks before the team was leaving for South Korea.
"Bruce had lost confidence at David Regis at that point," said National Team assistant coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick recently. "The reason why Frankie could survive at left back is because he's an absolute competitor, he's very quick and he understands his limits and what he can and cannot do."
One thing that he can always be counted on to do is to keep things loose. Don't be fooled by the short hair cut he's been keeping for the past few years. He only cut his long mane because he was too easily recognized for it over in Germany and he wanted a little more peace and quiet around town.
Sure, he's approaching his thirties and is a father (Frankie Nesta is now five years old), but he's still a surfer at heart, despite the lack of waves in Columbus.
"Everyone on the team is now called, 'Dude,'" said Andrulis. "I haven't been called, 'Dude,' in a long time, but I'll take it. He's been great for the young guys as well as the older guys. He's got such a good personality that he doesn't have to work at it. He fit right in with absolutely no problem. He is what he is and everyone accepts him."
The smile and exuberance Hejduk had this past summer during the National Team's epic run to the World Cup quarterfinals, that was lost in Switzerland, is back.
He's feeling so good at the moment that he's even joked to those around him about playing for 10 more years. In the meantime, Hejduk is expecting big things for a team that won the U.S. Open Cup and made it to the league semis last year.
"There's a lot of good young players who are experienced at the same time on this team," he said. "The thing about the group we have in Columbus is that we have a very fast team. I think I'm just going to add another dimension to that speed to the team that'll help. If we can put the right combination together, I think this team can do wonders."
That is, as long as he can keep churning out the cappuccinos.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.