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Americans Abroad

Hejduk surprises many by earning a starting spot for Leverkusen.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

Hejduk (Friday, April 30, 1999) -- Eyebrows were raised when he was signed by a top German club to a three-year contract, reportedly at more than $500,000 a year. He was inconsistent. He was not a smooth ball-handler. His crosses from the wing were frequently off-target.

Yes, he had blazing speed. Yes, he was a tireless worker, both on offense and defense. Yes, he had matured.

But very few people in the U.S. soccer community thought Frankie Hejduk would be playing regularly for Bayer Leverkusen in the prestigious German Bundesliga, in fact starting the last five games as his team rose to second place on the strength of five straight wins.

Media reaction overseas to his play has been favorable. If he continues in the lineup the rest of the season, the achievement would rank among the best in U.S. soccer history, certainly the top soccer story of 1999.

It's been a meteoric climb for the 24-year-old known for his affinity for surfing, who once was banished from the U.S. national team for several months for oversleeping and missing a plane flight to China.

Steve Sampson, the much-maligned national team coach following the 0-3 meltdown in France '98, deserves credit for having faith in the former UCLA star when few did.

Others ridiculed the selection, saying Hejduk didn't have the requisite skills. Over-the-hill veterans complained about "youngsters" and "new faces" displacing established stars. Hejduk responded by being one of the top two or three American players in the World Cup.

He almost scored in the opener against Germany, and his overall play obviously impressed Bayer Leverkusen observers, who afterward quickly moved to take him away from the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer. Getting acclimated, he played on the reserve team during the fall first half of the 1998-99 Bundesliga before moving up to the varsity roster for the spring second half.

He was inserted in the starting lineup with his team trailing Kaiserlautern for the all-important second-place berth that qualifies for next year's European Champions League, behind runaway leader Bayern Munich. Bayer Leverkusen went from three points down to 10 points ahead during the resulting winning streak going into this weekend's action.

Why is he doing so well after being merely above-average for most of his MLS career?

1. Many underestimate him. He's not a good dribbler, but he's crafty and a quick study. He showed better instincts with the ball during U.S. Cup in January, and scored goals in each game, to boot.
2. He is an all-out, durable competitor, who plays both ways -- an attribute appreciated in the Bundesliga.
3. German teams are not known for speed, so Hejduk with his quickness up and down the right flank is a phenomenon, though he will need more than that to survive in one of the world's top four leagues.

Hejduk had a tendency to play out of control in his early Mutiny days, but he has harnessed his impulses and become more focused. He's also now married and has a child, which tends to settle people down.

Where does he fit on the U.S. national team? Probably on the right flank, where his speed can be utilized. He needs to be more consistent on his crosses, like rising left-wing Eddie Lewis, and continue to improve on the ball.

He's just 24 years old.

Other national team news:

* Claudio Reyna, sold from Wolfsburg (Germany), has moved into the starting lineup at midfield for Glasgow Rangers (Scotland), and is playing effectively.

* Goalkeeper Kasey Keller is fresh from two 1-0 wins for modestly endowed Leicester City (England), has five shutouts in the last 10 England Premier League matches, and has a 1.15 goals-against average while going 11-10-13, which includes blowout losses to Arsenal and Manchester United.

* Goalkeeper Brad Friedel is back in the Liverpool lineup, with a 3-1 conquest of Blackburn, after being benched early in the season despite strong play for the club last spring.

* Jovan Kirovski, forward-attacking midfielder, has been on the bench for Fortuna Cologne (German second division) the past three games after starting most of the season.

* Midfielder Ernie Stewart, 30, who many hope still is in the national team picture, has five goals for weak Dutch Honor Division club NAC Breda (3-9-18).

* Defender Gregg Berhalter has two goals and is starting for Cambuur of the Dutch Honor Division.

* Tony Sanneh has yet to appear for Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin, which plays tomorrow at Leverkusen. Like U.S. teammate Hejduk, Sanneh has excellent speed and smarts, but lacks ball-handling skills -- or at least he did while with D.C. United in MLS. His development has been slowed by a leg tendon injury that sidelined him eight weeks.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of the Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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