With his dream of playing in a third straight World Cup dashed, Frankie Hejduk could have used any number of excuses to give up hope of ever playing in soccer's biggest event again. It was May 2006 and Hejduk was a 31-year-old veteran about to endure rehab for a torn ACL. With no guarantees about how much of his quickness he would lose and whether he could ever be the same player again, Hejduk could have looked at World Cup 2010, when he would be 35, and consider it an impossibility.
Instead of seeing World Cup 2010 as impossible, Hejduk set it as a goal. He didn't think twice about what his age might be or how tough it would be to battle any potential rivals for one of those precious World Cup roster spots. What he thought about was the doubters, and about proving them wrong. He thought about the family he has, and the soccer-crazed son who could watch him play in a World Cup. Hejduk had his surgery in May 2006 and, instead of sulking, his took his family to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, where he cheered the United States on and had the time of his life.
Almost three years later, Hejduk is well on his way to realizing a goal that few would have given him a realistic shot of achieving. You just don't typically see 35-year-old defenders in the World Cup -- the age Hejduk will be in the summer of 2010-- but you also don't usually see players enjoy a renaissance like Hejduk has experienced in the past year.
It is a year that saw Hejduk captain the Columbus Crew to a MLS Cup championship, and it is a year that saw Hejduk not only become a U.S. national team player again, but improbably a starter and major contributor.
"For Bob and the national team it's good to have a player like Frankie, who is a veteran who has played in so many World Cups and Olympics," said Columbus coach Robert Warzycha. "He brings a good attitude and personality to the team and he's making an impact this year."
Hejduk's impact with the national team in 2009 has been both impressive and vital. With longtime starting right back Steve Cherundolo sidelined by injuries, Hejduk has stepped in and delivered three stellar performances in World Cup qualifying to help the United States top the CONCACAF Qualifying Group.
The best of those performances came against El Salvador. Hejduk helped lead the United States from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 tie in San Salvador on March 28. Hejduk set up a Jozy Altidore goal with a perfect cross before heading home the equalizer.
"There are, in any team, players whose drive, whose competitiveness, whose determination in the game, sets the standard," U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley said in a press release after the El Salvador match. "Players who leave it all on the field, who may not look perfect but at the end of the day you'd take them on your team any day of the week. Frankie is one of those players."
"I've tried to play the same way for my whole career," Hejduk said. "I try to fight hard, play hard, tackle hard and leave my heart on the field. That's what I've been doing for years now.
"I wasn't gifted with all the skill in the world, so I had to figure out a way to do it another way, which is trying to fight and play hard and just try to run my opponents into the ground."
While Hejduk's style hasn't changed much, the quality of his play has changed for the better. The 34-year-old fullback feels that he has worked on his weaknesses to become a more complete player, which might explain why the past calendar year has been so successful for Hejduk.
"There's always stuff in your game you can work on," Hejduk said. "Obviously my crossing over the years hasn't been the best, but I've tried to work on that part of my game more and more and I feel like it's coming around. Is it where I want it to be? No, you always would like it to be better, but I've tried to polish my game a bit more."
Will that improvement be enough to help Hejduk keep the job when Cherundolo returns from hip surgery (he is expected to be back at some point this summer)? Hejduk's acknowledged flaws are still there, including the inconsistent crossing, poor touch on the ball and occasional penchant for two-footed tackles. However, his recent run of form has illustrated his strengths as well as his improvements.
It might not be enough to hold off the more skillful Cherundolo, but Hejduk is certainly making it a tough decision for Bradley. Bradley will eventually have to choose between's Hejduk's work rate, bite and leadership and Cherundolo's quality crossing and skill on the ball. Cherundolo's inconsistent play for the national team last summer and fall opened the door for doubts about his hold on the job, and Hejduk's recent form has made a full-blown competition.
That Hejduk has enjoyed such a renaissance is a testament to his perseverance and rehab from the ACL injury.
"At the time it seemed like a bit of a long shot but as a player you want to set your goals as high as you can," Hejduk said of making the 2010 World Cup a goal. "At the time, it was a goal that was a tough goal to reach, but in my mind I thought I could do it. Am I there? No. Am I still that long shot? I don't know, maybe, but I think I've gotten a lot closer to where I want to be than a lot of people thought I could get."
You couldn't really blame anybody who might have doubted Hejduk's ability to recover from that injury in 2006 to make another World Cup team. However, given his recent form with the national team, it's growing more likely that Hejduk will be one of the 23 players chosen to represent the United States in South Africa.
"He is still playing at a high level and he really isn't that old," Warzycha said. "He brings a personality and attitude to the team and you can see that he can still make things difficult for opponents."
Hejduk admits that he's motivated by the desire to experience the World Cup once again (he played in the 1998 and 2002 tournaments). His 11-year-old son Nesta (named after reggae legend Bob Marley) has also become his biggest supporter in the quest for a third World Cup appearance.
"He's got the soccer bug now and I know it would be really special for him to see me play in a World Cup," Hejduk said. "We had such a blast watching the World Cup in 2006, but being able to play in one more would really be special."
Hejduk's chances of making the 2010 World Cup team, and playing a key role, will hinge on his battle for the right back spot, which was previously held by Cherundolo. With Cherundolo set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines after hip surgery, Hejduk should have even more opportunities during the busy summer to cement his hold on the starting spot. That doesn't mean Hejduk is taking anything for granted.
"By no means do I think I'm the first guy or the second guy," Hejduk said of the starting right back position. "I just want to help the team out as much as I can. If Bob thinks I'm that guy who can help the team out then so be it.
"His job is to pick who's first or second. That's not mine or Stevie's job," Hejduk said. "We try to make it hard on him, and we both want to be out there -- that's being a pro athlete -- but you can only throw 11 people on the field at one time.
"We're really good friends off the field and on the field," Hejduk said of Cherundolo. "We're both from San Diego and we're both really mellow dudes, and I think we're both just happy to be part of the team and be able to help the team out as much as we can."
As much as Hejduk and Cherundolo are the favorites to be starting at right back for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, the national team pipeline does have some other prospects to consider, from the speedy Marvell Wynne to the versatile yet injury-plagued Jonathan Spector. Frank Simek is another player with an impressive skill set but no luck with injuries. That trio is the next level of American right backs after Hejduk and Cherundolo, and they should all have chances to impress during a busy summer of tournaments and qualifiers if they are healthy.
Hejduk doesn't get too caught up in the topic of being a national team starter, even as his play makes his case stronger and stronger. Hejduk is focused on maintaining his current level and reaching the goal he set for himself almost three years ago. Defying his age and his critics, Hejduk is well on his way to achieving that goal.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.