So often USA's unsung hero, Frankie Hejduk battled and harried incessantly in the recent win over arch-rivals Mexico. While young Michael Bradley grabbed both goals and all the headlines, the grizzled veteran produced a titanic performance amid the driving wind and rain spinning around his home ground of Columbus Crew Stadium.
"Those are the kinds of games I love," Hejduk, 34, told FIFA.com about the 2-0 win earlier this month in Central Ohio that put the US top of CONCACAF's final 'hexagonal' round. "A game against our biggest rivals on a messy pitch with the wind whipping around and the tackles flying in. I mean, what more could you ask for as a player? If you don't get excited for that kind of game, you're in the wrong business!"
Hejduk's enthusiasm, which saw him slammed into an advertising board at one stage, even earned him a bit of trouble after the final whistle. When a member of the Mexican coaching staff handed him a soft slap, the clip was beamed all over Mexican television and the internet. However Hejduk, with a laugh, dismisses the whole spat as "a miscommunication" and "no big deal".
In the USA team, Landon Donovan usually gets the plaudits for his elegance and creativity, DaMarcus Beasley for his goals, speed and improvisation on the flank, goalkeeper Tim Howard for his parsimony between the posts. Hejduk, the workhorse tasked with carrying the unfashionable business in midfield, rarely hits the net (six goals in 83 caps) or the front pages. However, against Mexico, in appalling conditions, his work rate and graft were just what the doctor ordered. Long hair and a love of surfing may give this Southern California native the look of a carefree Bohemian, but his work ethic is second-to-none.
"Most of the time USA-Mexico games are not spectacles of free-flowing soccer," said Hejduk, who ranks his USA as the best side in the region with the Mexicans a close second. "They are entertaining and furious and full of fire, but the intensity is so high that you won't see more than five or six passes in a row. These are the kinds of games that are more geared to my style. Playing Mexico is about pride, it's about bleeding for the colours. It's not about finesse or style; it's about getting in there and fighting for it."
No-one in the USA side fights for it with the ferocity of Hejduk. He's been doing it for over a decade now. Picking up his first cap in 1996, he has played under three coaches and seen more gifted players come and go. He's lined up for the Americans in two FIFA World Cups™, France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, only just missing out on Germany 2006 after tearing a knee ligament with a month to go.
The man who spent some hard years at Bayer Leverkusen between 1998 and 2002 is no stranger to serious injuries, and he immediately began to use the finals in South Africa as a motivator. "As soon as I went down and I knew I was going to miss Germany, I set South Africa as a goal," said Hejduk, who helped pull Columbus Crew out of the basement and deliver a first-ever MLS title for the unfashionable Ohioan club. "They were just words then, and something I used to help me work my way back. Now, though, it's beginning to look like a possibility."
The Americans are heavy favourites to finish among the region's three automatic places for South Africa, but as Hejduk attests, there will be some tough trials along the way. Next up: a trip to El Salvador's notorious Estadio Cuscatlan. "This will be a tough one. It is never easy travelling to Central America," added Hejduk before recounting tales of previous experiences in the region that have made for less than ideal preparation. "Just like they should, they do everything they can to make sure they have a serious home-field advantage. But this is as professional and as good a US team as I've ever seen, and we won't be intimidated on or off the pitch."