By Greg Lalas
March 30, 2009

For the past few years, U.S. national-team fans around the country have spent as much time debating who should line up at left back as econ majors do Timothy Geithner's job. Can Heath Pearce hold his own in a do-or-die game? Is the oft-injured Jonathan Bornstein good enough defensively? Does EddieLewis have anything left in the tank? Should Bob Bradley shift DaMarcusBeasley back there?

What has not been up for discussion is the other side of the field. Unless he has been injured, Steve Cherundolo's name has been written in pen on the U.S. roster sheet at right back. Maybe even engraved there.

And rightly so. Cherundolo is the consummate contributor, possessing the steady professionalism of a man who has earned his bones in the German Bundesliga. He has the precise, cultured ability to balance his defensive responsibilities and attacking opportunities. He isn't the proverbial machine, but he has a methodical effectiveness that makes a fan glad he's back there.

He hasn't been back there much lately, though, has he? Injuries have kept the Hannover right back out of the U.S. lineup since last September, and there have been rumors that the 30-year-old might even be on his way out at the AWD-Arena.

Cherundolo's absence these past six months opened up a mouth-watering opportunity for some up-and-coming whippersnapper to emerge on the scene. But the leading candidates -- Marvell Wynne, Jonathan Spector, FrankieSimek, John Thorrington -- all have failed to assert themselves, for various reasons.

Enter Frankie Hejduk. Or should I say, re-enter? The 34-year-old Columbus Crew captain is the master of seizing opportunities, again and again. He did it at the World Cup in '98, when he provided the only heartbeat to a flat-lined team and earned himself a move to Bayer Leverkusen. He did it again in '02, when he supplanted David Regis at left back.

Now, after missing the '06 World Cup with a late knee injury, he has done it again. Frankie not only has filled in admirably for Cherundolo, but, if you ask me, he also might have staked a claim to the right-back position even when Cherundolo is good to go.

"Cultured" is not a word one would use to describe Hejduk. "Cult," maybe. As in the cult of personality that surrounds the dude in Columbus, where he led the Crew to their first MLS Cup title last season and chugged a few beers along the way. Or as in the cult of surfing to which he lovingly adheres -- a philosophy, by the way, that requires discipline (gotta get up early to get the best waves), perseverance (you don't stand up on your first try), experience (understanding waves is catching them and surviving them) and, of course, an ocean-sized heart.

All of these factors came into sharp relief in the final 20 minutes against El Salvador on Saturday night. Down 2-0, the U.S. needed something, or someone, to step up. Frankie suddenly started bombing down the right wing, hair like a thoroughbred's mane. His cross set up the first goal, a header from Jozy Altidore. Then, with minutes to play, he got into the box and headed home the equalizer. As ESPN's John Harkes pointed out, he literally shoved Altidore out of the way to get to the cross and knock it in.

But it wasn't just a 20-minute performance in Central America that has me wondering if Frankie should be the starter there. He was a monster last month against Mexico, both on the field, where he shut down Giovani dos Santos & Co., and off the field, where he scuffled with a pathetically bad loser from the Mexican technical staff after the game.

Hejduk's performances with the Crew also have been stellar. Say what you will about MLS and its ability to prepare players for the international game, but in Frankie's case, it has no bearing. He plays at the same level, the same pace, whether in the Bundesliga, the World Cup or on a beach with his buds. In Columbus, he has proved to be one of the best leaders in the U.S. game, an overwhelming personality who inspires merely by being there.

It's this intangible, larger-than-life presence that makes Hejduk so invaluable to a side that sometimes seems to lack personality. To me, a good team needs personality, flair and a bit of madness to go along with the method. All the best Brazilian teams had this, of course, but so did the Italian teams (GennaroGattuso, anyone?) and the French and Argentine teams. That's Hejduk's greatest contribution, his unpredictable madness among the hard-nosed stoicism of Michael Bradley, the seek-and-destroy efficiency of OguchiOnyewu and the businesslike sniping of Landon Donovan.

At 34, an age when outside backs are usually on the wane, Hejduk still has his pace and he has the desire of a player on the verge of the end. The 2010 World Cup is Frankie's last hurrah, and he knows it. I spoke to him after the MLS Cup last year, and the joy -- almost relief -- in his voice at having won a championship was "awesome," as he would say. He's playing with that same spirit these days at the international level.

At this point, I doubt Bradley is ready to cross out Cherundolo's inked name. He's got a "Frankie" Post-It note there for now. But as this team moves through the next six months of World Cup qualifying and gets a few more reality checks like the one in El Salvador, I expect Hejduk to be right there in the middle of the fans' debates.

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