Circle of Honor 2014 candidate spotlight: Frankie Hejduk
Eyes closed and making a run that would give any manager a heart attack with a one-goal lead in a cup final, Crew defender and Captain Frankie Hejduk connected with a lofted Guillermo Barros Schelotto-ball into the box to put the exclamation mark on the Black & Gold's first MLS Cup victory over the New York Red Bulls and further the long-time rightback's place in Crew lore.
It's that type of unconventional thinking on -- and off -- the field that set Hejduk apart from the rest. The defender's positive-vibe-spreading attitude matched with his ability to light a fire in his teammates in training and game situations made Hejduk the obvious choice to captain Sigi Schmid's Crew from 2006-08 on a team flooded with talent like 2008 MVP Schelotto and MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall and veterans that had tasted the glory of MLS Cup such as Brian Carroll and Alejandro Moreno.
It's a long overused sports cliche, but every championship team in every sport has its "glue guys." For the Crew, Hejduk was that and so much more. On the field, the Southern California native was the voice of the Black & Gold and a tireless worker on the flank, never shying away from sticking-in for a tackle while also contributing to attack from the backline. Much of the Crew's success in 2008 has been credited to the locker room and the players' ability to gel off the field. As its Captain, Hejduk was the man that brought the Crew together, organizing cookouts with his teammates and other team outings away from the pitch.
These qualities not only made Hejduk a well-liked teammate, but also a fan favorite among Crew supporters. A rarity in sports, Hejduk joined a supporters' tailgate in October 2008 to have a brew and show his mutual adoration for the fans and city of Columbus. Even as a member of the LA Galaxy in 2011, Hejduk was the most popular player on the field while visiting Crew Stadium as an opponent.
With the combination of respect and admiration Hejduk earned from both teammates and fans, it comes to no surprise that the defender was voted by fans as a finalist to be inducted into the Crew's Circle of Honor in 2014.
EIGHT YEARS IN BLACK & GOLD
By fate, the San Diego native Hejduk was allocated the Crew just before the start of the 2003 season after spending four years plying his trade for German giants Bayer Leverkusen and Swiss side St. Gallen. The acquisition gave the Black & Gold another bona fide U.S. Men's National Team star along with forward Brian McBride as the club looked to build on the momentum that came with the Crew's first major trophy, the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Following McBride's departure in January 2004 for Fulham in the English Premier League, Hejduk was left as the new face of the Crew franchise. Emerging as a leader on the field and in the locker room, Hejduk helped the Black & Gold to their first-ever MLS Supporters' Shield that season.
While the next few seasons brought personnel changes and mixed results for the Black & Gold, Hejduk was a staple in the Crew lineup. The 2006 season brought hope to the Crew as Hejduk's college coach Sigi Schmid was hired to manage the Crew, bringing the experience of winning four major North American soccer trophies with him to Columbus. A shoe-in to make the 23-man roster for the U.S. at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Hejduk was dealt a major blow to his dream of playing in a third-straight World Cup following a torn ACL diagnosis the day after Bruce Arena named the defender to his roster for the competition.
2007 brought a glimpse of the future for the Crew as Hejduk returned to full strength to captain the club as the team acclimated to a new playing style with Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the mix. The Black & Gold won three of its final five matches to narrowly miss an Eastern Conference playoff spot, leaving hope for the side heading into the 2008 season.
Hitting full stride under Schmid the next season, Hejduk donned the captain's armband in 24 League matches. The rightback scored one goal and supplied four assists as the Crew claimed its second MLS Supporters' Shield. In the MLS Cup Playoffs, Hejduk was the yin to Schelotto's yang as the Black & Gold marched its way to the Cup Final with the Argentine picking apart opponents' defenses and the American defender holding down the backline to lift the club to the most prized silverware in American soccer: the Anschutz Trophy.
Hejduk helped the Crew to its second-straight -- and third overall -- MLS Supporters' Shild the following season before playing his final season in Columbus in 2010.
Hejduk and the Crew parted ways that offseason, which saw the defender ride off into the sunset of his playing career to win his second career MLS Cup and fifth career Supporters' Shield with the LA Galaxy. The fairy tale ending saw a 16-year pro career that began with a Supporters' Shield-winning campaign with the Tampa Bay Mutiny come to a close.
FOR CLUB AND COUNTRY
Though his U.S. National Team credentials will bear no weight in his Circle of Honor candidacy, there is no denying Hejduk's impact on American soccer. A veteran of two Summer Olympic Games and two World Cups, Hejduk -- along with the recently retired Steve Cherundolo -- is widely considered the top rightback in U.S. Soccer's 101-year history.
Winning 85 caps with the National Team from 1996-2009, Hejduk helped his country to CONCACAF Gold Cup titles in 2002, 2005 and 2007. Over his 14-year senior U.S. National Team career, Hejduk scored seven goals and contributed two assists while representing his country.
The defender earned his first call to the big stage at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. Though the 1998 Cup was disappointing as the States lost all three matches in group play, Hejduk was a bright spot for the U.S. as he appeared in all three matches to earn valuable experience in world soccer's top competition. Hejduk's performance in the U.S. midfield did not go unnoticed. Just after returning from France, the 24-year-old signed with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where he'd go on to see UEFA Champions League action alongside World Class talent such as Michael Ballack, Dimitar Berbatov and Zé Roberto.
In the following World Cup in Japan/South Korea in 2002, Hejduk played an integral role in the United States' best performance in the competition. Hejduk neutralized reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Luis Figo in the Stars and Stripes' 3-2 upset of Portugal and started in the midfield in the National Team's controversial loss to Germany in the quarterfinal.
While a torn ACL kept him out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Hejduk still traveled overseas while recovering. The defender spent time with U.S. supporters to show his pride for his country after helping the U.S. qualify for the tournament.
Hejduk made three appearances in the Hexagonal round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Fittingly, one of the defender's final caps came in February 2009 at Crew Stadium, when the U.S. knocked off Mexico 2-0 for the third-straight occasion in Columbus.
ONE WITH THE FANS
After announcing his retirement with the Crew in 2012, Hejduk joined to team's front office as the first-ever Brand Ambassador. With his playing days behind him and an infinite amount of energy to burn, there is no better person to broaden the Black & Gold's imprint on the Columbus community than Frankie Hejduk.
The now 39-year-old can often be seen skateboarding up and down High Street with a Black & Gold checkered flag in tow or in bars sharing a beer and his love of soccer with local fans. Hejduk has also been a strong proponent in the club's community outreach programs, speaking at schools and other events around town.
There is perhaps no one that bleeds Black & Gold more than Frankie Hejduk, 2014 Circle of Honor candidate.