What better way to wrap up this series than to chat with the captain of the 2008 MLS Cup champions, Frankie Hejduk? A Circle of Honor inductee, Frankie scored the iconic goal that sealed the Crew’s greatest on-field accomplishment until it was equaled in 2020 with the lifting of a second MLS Cup. Someone who has been passionately advocating for Crew in a front office role since his retirement, Frankie was there to see the current team earn their place in Columbus lore as Massive Champions.
As always, it was a joy to chat with Frankie. Even if we had to do it by phone under the circumstances, his energy and good vibes still shined through. Some of our conversation has been edited for length.
What an amazing turn of events this 2020 season turned out to be…
Yeah, I feel the soccer gods were with us. Dude, there wasn’t a fan base, a city, a group of players, or an organization that deserved this more for all the turmoil we went through for months and months and months.
So the Crew beat New England, then Seattle has their miraculous comeback against Minnesota. What are you thinking leading into the match, and then when we got the news that Darlington and Pedro would have to miss the game?
That’s what a team is built around. That’s why you go out to training every day and act like you’re going to be the starter, just in case something like this happens. If you want to say a word about the guys who were on the field in place of the other guys, the word is prepared. Guys have been prepared all year. So there was no nervousness for me at all because I knew this team was prepared. There are too many good people in that locker room and in this organization that it wasn’t going to matter.
I went up to Dee and Jimmy Haslam before the game, before Chad Marshall and I took out the trophy, and I go, ‘Hey guys, there’s a different aura around here. It’s a big difference around here and I’m feeling it right now, so thank you for what you’ve done and you’re going to deserve every bit of this.’ That was a big moment for me, just to be there after all that was going on. As always, I wish all the fans could be there, but there were enough of them allowed in there to help the team out. But man, the aura of the fans was there, whether they were watching on TV or in the stadium. I’m a big spiritual guy and I felt it. I predicted 3-1 Crew like I always do, and I was close!
The defense was so solid all year, especially at home. You always want your home to be your fortress, and damn, dude, with this team their home was their fortress and there was just an aura around the stadium.
I always talk about how ex-players have to live vicariously through the players, and man, if there ever was a reflash to the 2008 team, this was it. I’m just living through them. I was in the moment with (fellow right back) Harrison right there. I wanted those guys to feel the exact moment that we won the Cup because they know they had the city behind them at that moment and that’s a really unexplainable moment to have, and now they have it. The more any Columbus Crew team can live the moment that we lived in ’08 and now they’ve lived in 2020, that’s great. And I don’t think anybody predicted us to win in either of those years, and we prevailed. Now we’ve been to the final three times in the last 12 years and we have two stars on our jersey.
Man, we’ve come a long way, and this city has come a long way. All I ever wanted when I came here in 2003 was when I saw the passion of the (Ohio State) football team. I thought, ‘Dang, dude, this city has the same passion that European cities have for soccer over there.’ It’s the same type of passion, whether it’s Liverpool or Ohio State. They’re diehard. The similarities were unbelievable. I knew that soccer could succeed here because Columbus has such passionate sports fans who love their teams. Clippers games, Blue Jackets games, football games, people love their sports here. Soccer is a passion sport and we’re passionate people. The city has accepted us. We are a sports town, dude. And now us and the Blue Jackets and the Clippers are all going to live within a mile of each other. I mean, whoa. The sky is the limit for this city because of the passion of the city. And the Crew is 100% relevant. When you bring two championships to a city, you are relevant. And we’ve done that. If you had told me this in 2003, it probably was one of the top five goals of my life. And we’re living it, but there is still so much yet to live. The story hasn’t stopped yet.
You mentioned the aura that you were feeling. As captain of the 2008 team, what were those similarities you were feeling? What did you see that was special in them from your own experience?
Just the guys themselves and how they reach out to the community and the captain, Mensah, and everything. The team itself was unbelievable in the locker room. The core of that locker room is just a bunch of cool dudes that were ready to fight for the city. They were a bunch of battlers and fighters like we were in ’08.
I mean, I can compare all of them. When you look at it, Will Hesmer was a rock in goal and a guy you could rely on. That year, he made every save he needed to make. Now it’s Eloy Room. Now right back. We have an attacking right back that likes to get forward and is forward more than he is back. And what did I like to do? I liked to get forward, although Harrison is much more skillful than I was. But I tackled hard and that made up for it. Then the next guy over is Jonathan Mensah, a big strong back who wins every head ball, doesn’t take crap, and nothing’s getting by him. That’s Chad Marshall. Then you go over and it’s Josh Williams, a local Ohio guy who is hard nosed and loves his community and had a perfect partnership with Mensah like Danny O’Rourke did with Chad Marshall. Then Gino Padula was a super skilled Argentine left back with a great left foot that could put in a great ball. It almost looked too simple for him. Now we have Milton Valenzuela as the Argentine left back that is good with his feet and can play a great ball. I mean, just the back end of the field right there, oh my god, the similarities.
Defensive midfielder, we had Brian Carroll, who broke up plays and broke up whatever was going to happen. He played very simple. Nagbe and Artur were our Brian Carroll and Brad Evans mix. Those guys are not totally similar, but not totally different either. Brad Evans was a box to box guy and Artur is a box to box guy. Nagbe is a little bit more of a holding player but he can score goals at any moment and never loses the ball, and Brian Carroll never lost the ball much either and he played a little more simple than Nagbe. Then you go out right and we had Eddie Gaven, who was faster with the ball at his feet than without it. Now we have Diaz, who’s super fast and different than Eddie Gaven, but they both got behind the defense. Then out left, we had Robbie Rogers, who tucks in and can go inside or outside and score goals. Pedro Santos tucks in and can go inside or outside and can serve a good ball and go both ways. Very similar.
And then you go to the central midfielder. We had a ten who was like a holding nine in Guillermo, right? So we had Guillermo Barros Schelotto and they had Zelarayan. Both Argentinean, and when they get the ball at their feet, you know something special is going to happen. Guille was a magical player. We all knew that. And what we’ve seen in one year from Zelarayan, I mean, wow, another magical player. And then up top, we had another holding player in Alejandro Moreno, who could create fouls and set up free kicks for Guille. He didn’t get behind the defense as often as Zardes. I wouldn’t say Zardes is a holding forward, but he can hold the ball up, lay it off, and then get behind people.
I could probably do the same thing for the entire bench. It’s like an algorithm. At that time with the Crew, we had guys who were consistently in the mix with their national teams or U-23 teams and the same is true now. If you really look deeply into it, it’s like, wow. And I did because I am living through these guys. I felt like I was one of them again. When they lifted the Cup, I got to feel the moment that we lifted the Cup. That was one of the happiest moments of my life and I got to relive it. I knew how Harrison felt. I knew how Mensah felt. I knew how Zardes felt. I knew how each of those guys felt in that moment. It was their time. It was time to pass the puck.
Columbus has waited long enough for another championship. They deserved it more this year than ever. I’m just stoked for the guys and the whole organization. And also the fans, because this one was for them. And I think the players knew that. They were not only living this for themselves, but for the fans. Hey man, what’s right is right. What’s right is right and this is what was supposed to happen. And it happened. The soccer gods knew it.
I know you predicted 3-1 Crew, but did you expect such an ass-kicking from the opening whistle?
Never. It was a dream final. It was like they had a superpower around them because they played like they were from a different world. I don’t think I’ve seen a final like that in MLS. I don’t think there’s been one like that where you knew from the opening whistle. You always want to hope that’s what will happen, but there was something different that day about everything. I’ve never really seen a team be so connected. I think a lot had to do with playing in that stadium and being at home and feeling comfortable in this city.
How about Aidan Morris doing what he did at 19 years old?
That just goes to show what’s coming up next with the youth here. And there’s more. Keita’s getting called into the U-23 National Team, which he should be, and I’m happy for him because he’s another awesome dude. These guys coming up through the system, the coaches should be so proud. Sebastian Berhalter is another one. But for Aidan to step on the field and perform the way he did in a final, I think it was just great tactics by Caleb where he just sent him out there to mark Lodeiro out of the game. Aidan’s a ball winner and he doesn’t take any crap and he’s so strong. He’s tough. What a perfect role of Aidan. He has a bright future, which because of this game, we all know now. It’s an amazing moment for him because there aren’t a lot of rookie players who win a championship right away in any sport, let alone almost star in the championship. So kudos to him and the coaching staff.
I’m sure you loved the first goal since it involved a right back getting forward and sending in a perfect ball. And what a finish by Lucas.
That’s what I mean. That’s my dream. What a dream final. Everything was perfect. That ball was perfect. That volley was perfect. Our defending was perfect from the forwards on back. Our aggressiveness was perfect. Mensah was perfect. King Harrison was perfect. I’ll just say everyone was perfect. It was a perfect final. When you have that type of final, there’s a type of chemistry that the players and fans and organization can feel, and we all felt it that night.
The team was so connected. They were Massive. I didn’t know if the team was going to be able to do that and they did it times ten. The bar is now set for the next Massiveness, and the sky is the limit for this team. And they did it all over the field.
How about Lucas? Ownership shelled out some big money for him, and when you talk about a perfect final, Lucas might have literally played a perfect game. The goals, the assists, the touches in possession, the defensive work…he seemed like he was everywhere all night long.
He exemplified everything you want out of a number ten. Not only the offensive work he did, but the work he did defensively. He showed that he can step it up in a final. You never know who is going to fold up or step up in these big games. And what we saw was that nobody on this team folded up. What we saw from Lucas was not only was he not going to dip, but he was going to shine. All of these guys shined like the best players do. And Lucas shined like the best number tens do. He exemplified what you want your number ten to be. He really worked hard, not only leading the offense, but also being in the right spot defensively, which is a big part of the modern game. There are a lot of players these days that are unbelievable on offense and can do anything with the ball, but being organized defensively and doing the defensive work is the next part of the game. Lucas did that, and I would say he did it perfectly.
You got to watch the game with some 2008 guys like Danny O’Rourke and Chad Marshall. What was that like to watch with them? Danny told me you said, ‘We’re the old guys now.’
No, I said we’re the O.G.s! Which I guess is old guys. We were joking around and stabbing ourselves the whole time about us being old and there’s a new generation. But I couldn’t wait to pass the puck. This team has worked too hard and they deserve it so much. I couldn’t want a better group of dudes. And I’m really happy for Josh Williams. He’s been such a stud in this community. He’s the coolest dude on and off the field. I only played with him that one year, but I’ve known him for years now. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I know he’s going to have a big role in the team, but also hopefully this club in the future, because he’s one of those dudes you want to have around for awhile. He’s literally the coolest guy you could want as a coach and as a player and as a guy in the locker room. I am so happy for him.
You pretty much already addressed this, but I was going to ask about welcoming new guys to the Massive Champion fraternity.
We have two stars now. That’s a big deal now and for the future. Like I said, Sirk, back in 2003, this is all I ever wanted to do, was to have the city love this team so much and to just appreciate it. And I think we’re there. A second championship really affirms to the city of Columbus, which is a bunch of winners, that, hey, we’re here man. We’ve been here for a quarter century and Columbus is a sports town. They’ve accepted us and they love us. And now we’re getting the coolest new stadium, which all of these players and staff deserve, and the city also deserves it. It’s right downtown next to all the other cool stadiums in the city. I’m so happy to go from where we were a few years ago to where we are now and where we are heading in the future.
And speaking of the future, the Crew are already reloading, adding Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino to a team that already won MLS Cup.
And not even trying to convince these guys that they should want to come here. They’re happy to be here. They want to be at a winning organization and they see the seeds that we’re planting— the seeds of a culture that Caleb’s built, that Bez has built, that the Haslams and Dr. Edwards have built, and with a fanbase that will be rocking a new stadium as defending champions and hopefully winning another one. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that? That’s where I’d want to be!
Finally, what would you say to the fans? Saving the team could be considered a storybook ending, and opening the new stadium and looking to the future could be a storybook ending, but MLS Cup 2020 was a third storybook ending to the same story.
There couldn’t have been a story that they deserve more, honestly. I mean, this really happened. And we get to be part of that, what they created. They wrote the book, and the book’s not even close to being done yet. Because of what they did, and what the city did, and all the individuals who helped make this work, and we can’t name all of them, but they know who they are…I just couldn’t be more thankful to them. But the story isn’t finished. They started the book. It started out so bad and now it is so beautiful and isn’t even close to ending. The beauty is just starting. It’s something cool to be a part of so far and they deserve every bit of this. This is what a community can do when they truly love something. They can make a wrong a right. They showed it here in Columbus perfectly. This is a Cinderella story that’s not done yet.
It was such a strange year. I was down for the opener on Crewsmas and haven’t set foot in Columbus since. It’s been really weird watching home games on TV from my couch. Especially MLS Cup. I just surrounded myself with meaningful Crew items like my own little Jobu shrine. So it’s been fun talking to people like you and to share in those emotions to make me feel more connected. I’ve been trying to talk to people and share in their happiness to hopefully bring all of us closer together since many people, myself included, couldn’t be there.
It was electric. It was just a glorifying moment. I’ll put it that way. I watched the game with Chad Marshall and Danny O’Rourke and we were just hugging each other and were just so happy. We were like, ‘This team deserved it.’ There was an aura where you knew what was happening, but it was glory. It was glory. These guys did it and we get to pass it on. That’s how I felt. I felt the rays going out to those players. It was so cool.
And I really got to experience it with all my kids too, which was even more glorifying. Nesta got to watch in ‘08, but Coasten was two at the time, so he didn’t really see it. And now Hendrix got to see it, and he’s five. And Cali, she’s ten. And Coasten, he’s 13. And Nesta is 22. They all got to witness the Crew winning again. They’ve all seen the pictures in my house, and they’ve seen the videos, but they didn’t get to live that moment. So for me, that was so cool as a father, to be passing the torch a bit, to say, ‘Hey kids, this is your team.’ I saw the light in their eyes and the glory in their eyes.
That’s awesome. I wrote about it at the time, but one of my favorite memories of MLS Cup 2008 was when you asked me if you could be done with interviews, and then you put your arm around Nesta and the two of you just soaked up the scene in the locker room. It was just a lovely father-son moment where the two of you just silently took it all in. I remember being really glad that happened, so I’m happy to hear you got to experience it with the rest of your kids in 2020.
It was cool because I got to see it with these guys too, with all their kids on the field. So I was living again through them. They say history repeats itself, and I got to relive that moment with my kids through the players and their kids. That’s what this is all about.
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