Eddie Pope was a dominant center back for club and country. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
This story originally was posted on MLSnet.com Oct. 15, 2007 and is used with permission.
By Michael Lewis
There is something circular and ironic about Eddie Pope’s final game of his pro career.
Exactly a dozen years to the day he made his first real impact in professional soccer, Eddie Pope will officially call it a career on Oct. 20.
He will don the blue, red and yellow of Real Salt Lake one final time against the Colorado Rapids at Invesco Field in Commerce City , Colo. , Sunday trying to play spoiler to his opponent’s playoff chances.
He will play his final home game with Real Salt Lake on Monday, again reduced to a spoiler’s role as the team tries to upend the defending champion Houston Dynamo’s wishes of a first-place finish in the Western Conference.
Pope’s RSL side was in another battle, a long-distance one at that with Toronto FC, at the bottom of the conference, trying to avoid finishing as the team with the least number of points.
Last place, however, is the last place you would talk about Pope’s fabulous career.
When asked to describe Pope, New York Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena replied, “A great career and a pretty classy guy on and off the field.”
Arena was just as impressed with the timing of the 33-year-old Pope’s retirement.
“He knows when he’s done,” he said. “He doesn’t want to play one more game than he has to, and he wants to go off on his own terms. There are times when players don’t leave the game on their own terms, and Eddie wants to do that and leave with the reputation and memories that he left us.”
An MLS original, Pope was drafted by Arena on the second round of the college draft when he directed D.C. United in the early days of MLS in 1996.
For an MLS rookie, Pope had quite a moving first year, emotionally and physically, shuttling between United and the U.S. Olympic team before he rejoined the team for good in August. However, during the final weeks of the regular season, Pope commuted between D.C. and Chapel Hill , N.C. , where he took courses to finish his degree at the University of North Carolina .
He did not win rookie of the year that season — Steve Ralston (then with Tampa , now with New England ) did.
But Pope’s contributions to the game went well past winning awards (although there is certainly nothing wrong about that).
“He’s really been one of the best players we’ve ever produced in our country,” said Red Bulls assistant coach Richie Williams, a teammate of Pope on United and the MetroStars.
“He understood the game very well. He was pretty physical. He could run. He knew what he could do with the ball. He wasn’t flashy with the ball, but just knew where the next pass needed to go. He wasn’t a huge talker, but he could read the game and organize in that way.”
The 6-1, 180-lb. Pope was a member of the U.S. National Team from 1996 to 2006, making 82 international appearances and performing in three World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006).
He also was voted to 11 MLS all-star games, the league’s defender of the year in 1997 and to the MLS all-time IX when the league celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2005.
Through Monday afternoon, Pope had played in 252 matches spanning 21,666 minutes for three MLS sides, scoring 10 goals and 10 assists, while accruing only 22 yellow cards and two red cards.
“He’s always been . . . a great one-on-one defender,” said another Red Bulls assistant coach John Harkes, a teammate of Pope from 1996-98. “One thing as a defender, you always wanted a guy that going to be level headed in the right parts of the field to put himself in spots to make plays and Eddie has always done that.
“He matured with the game in a quick period of time. It didn’t take him long to catch up to the speed of the game and being able to read it from a deep position as. a center back.”
Kansas City Wizards technical director Peter Vermes added that Pope spoke more through his play than through words.
“If there’s one thing you could say about Eddie, he was always a quiet guy. He did all of his talking though his play,” he said. “He was a consummate professional from the perspective that he always gave you everything he had when he stepped onto the field. He just got better year after year from understanding the game and reading it. I think he really enjoyed playing the game.”
While certainly never known as a goal-scorer, Pope’s most famous goal will standout in MLS history forever because he put an exclamation point on the very first season and MLS Cup, a championship game that has been used as a standard for any other since.
The encounter was played in a nor’easter in conditions better suited for ducks and just about anything with gills there were so many puddles at Foxboro Stadium that stormy Sunday. Still, some 34,000 fans showed up (42,000 bought tickets) and witnessed a game for the ages.
“I knew that every championship game wasn’t going to end that way,” Pope once said. “That was pretty dramatic. San Jose ‘s comeback win a few years ago (2001) might be the closest. It’s hard to duplicate.
“How good that was for the league? It was on TV on ABC.
“What a good game for the league to have for the first championship. Can other games live up to it? We were certainly blessed.”
When RSL plays highlights of Pope’s career before Monday night’s match, that goal has to be featured.
United rallied from a 2-0 deficit late in the second half to record a 3-2 extratime victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Pope’s rendezvous with history came four minutes into extratime. Marco Etcheverry sent a corner kick into the penalty area. Pope eluded Curt Onalfo (now coach of the Kansas City Wizards) and headed the ball past Mexican international goalkeeper Jorge Campos.
“I scored a couple of those like that during the year,” Pope said. “It probably helped me not being a well-known player or a dangerous player.
“We worked on that at practice during the week. Marco pretty much put the ball where he wanted it. He sent me a great ball and I finished it.”
At the time, Pope couldn’t fathom what had just transpired.
“More than anything, probably disbelief,” he said.
In celebration Pope and several teammates performed a long belly slide in a puddle that was quickly becoming a lake. It didn’t matter. They were already wet.
The goal and championship capped a memorable rookie season that turned out to be the start of something big.
“For me, wanting to be a professional soccer player and wanting to be a champion, it took a while for that to settle in,” Pope said.
“To have an accomplishment like that was unbelievable.
“It was unreal.
“It was surreal.”
You can’t say that about Eddie Pope’s career. It was certainly the real and most recently, the Real thing.