Midway through my interview at Seventh Son Brewing Co. with Columbus Crew and U.S. Men's National Team soccer legend Frankie Hejduk, we're interrupted. This happens often with Frankie.
A twentysomething with a thin, faint mustache, a trucker hat and board shorts emblazoned with the American flag greets Frankie with a Frankie-esque “What up, dude,” and soon the two start talking about L.A., surfing, soccer and the upcoming U.S. vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier. Frankie describes the upcoming qualifier as gnarly, some hugs are exchanged, pictures are taken and the guy promises to try to make it to the parties surrounding the game. I was reminded then that if Frankie was born to do anything but play soccer, it’s getting people amped about soccer. Which is, uh, frankly, why we're doing this interview. So let me get out of the way, and let the man do his thing. This, dear readers, is why the U.S.-Mexico game is such a big deal in Frankie’s own words.
Whenever Mexico comes to town, I start losing my mind. I want to bust out two-legged tackles and get a little weird.
Before the game, I'm in the locker room, I'm six espressos deep, shaking, just headbutting people, and people are like, “Frankie, try not to get a red card today.” I was pumped. Everybody has their own deal, but everybody's always pumped for this game. It's the game of all games for a U.S. soccer player — this is it.
When the national anthem's going off and the red, white and blue flags are going, I think of the guys who were just as good as me but who didn't make it. Or the guys who were just as passionate about soccer but it just didn't happen. Those are the players I play for. You know, I'm in a lucky spot. Those memories all come to fruition when you're in that moment and you're hearing that national anthem.
When it starts, you're so into the game and so into the fans and wanting to win for them and your country. Everything else disappears. I'm just in a zone, and you don't realize anything till after the game.
The first [U.S.-Mexico game in Columbus], I didn't play in. I was on the bench for it. It was freezing cold, probably the absolute worst soccer conditions in terms of cold. It wasn't snowing, but it was ice cold, with a little wind and a lake effect, even though we don't have a lake around here. I'm telling you, it was cold.
[Mexico] didn't come out to warm up. We were warming up, and we were thinking they were going to, and when they didn't, it was like, woah. It was like, “Hey, dude, we've already got the psychological advantage.” It was like, “Who doesn't come out for warmups? Too cold to play? What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
I don't remember the second [U.S.-Mexico] game as much. It was a qualifier, and Steve Ralston scored. That was gigantic because that qualified us for the World Cup, and I don't think a tie would have.
The third one, I wasn't supposed to play in, and [then coach] Bob Bradley called me up maybe 10 days before and said, “Frankie, I think I need you for this game. Are you staying in shape? Are you fit?” I was like, “You know, I've been surfing a lot. That's been my offseason program, so if you consider that fitness, which I do, Bob, I've been doing it for years.”
He said, “I'm going to need you in about 10 days.” I said, “Let me freshen up, let me see how my touch is,” which, it's never been the greatest. He brought me in to camp. I trained for eight or nine days and went straight into the U.S.-Mexico game. I think he wanted me there because he knew I was comfortable playing there with the stadium and the area and the fans. I was ready.
I remember that game. It was the most I fit I've ever been, for whatever reason. That game was the pinnacle for me of like, “Wow, they can't beat us here. We beat them three times in a row here. We have them; this is it.”
In one [game], within three hours in February we had every type of weather you could have. It snowed, hailed, sleeted, rained and was windy and then was sunny right before the game. They must have been like, “Woah. What is this place?” It must have been in their heads, like, “If we can get a tie, great.” Normally, Mexico goes for wins. That told me this was a place they felt not powerful, which Mexico doesn't feel very often. They are a very confident team, and over the years they've proved it.
They play soccer the way they think it should be played, the way a lot of soccer people think it should be played. But for whatever reason, when they come here, they don't play that way. They start playing kick ball, and we run over them.
I've been in [similar] situations, in Panama and Guatemala. They're throwing firecrackers on your bungalows the night before the game. They set up big radio stations the night before the game, with 15-feet ghetto blasters, and the radio starts at 12 at night till 12 in the morning, and you have to play the next day.
[Crew Stadium's] not the best stadium. It's not the Dallas Cowboys, it's not [Sporting] Kansas City. It's rugged. It's rootsy. It's as Green Bay Packers as you can get as a stadium. I think Mexico is intimidated by that, like this is a rustic, rootsy town. They can choose anywhere in the country to play this game, and they choose Columbus.
We have a bunch of massive, underdog, rootsy fans who come to Columbus, not because we have the coolest stadium, but because it stands for everything American. It stands for passion and hard work and heart, and you're going to have to leave it all out on the field. That's why we have the game here. It's that underdog mentality, and U.S. soccer has actually adapted that massiveness, in terms of … passion and heart and soul. We have a bunch of people who come out and scream and yell and are absolutely mad about their team.
When you come into a stadium and you know you're going to win there, you have a history there, that's an extra mental edge, like, “We don't want to lose here, so I have to step my game up so I don't disappoint the people [who played here] in the past and the people in the stadium.” You don't want to be the first to lose here.
Every time it’s 2-0.