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Back in the groove

Following the U.S. national team's 3-2 victory against Japan last Friday, Eddie Pope said, "We're all fighting for spots."

The fight for places on Bruce Arena's World Cup roster is well underway, but that isn't the battle Pope has spent two years waging. No, his battle is with his own body and his own form, and based on his recent performances, Pope appears to be winning that battle.

Make no mistake, the past two U.S. opponents are so far from the quality of opponent the United States will see in Germany it is laughable, but you still can't ignore the way Pope has looked. He has displayed a confidence and exuberance that is reminiscent of the dominating defender who starred for the United States in the 2002 World Cup. Pope has even found the net in the past two games, looking every bit like the type of dynamic center back the United States will need to match up against the powerful squads that make up the World Cup's Group H.

If you are surprised by the recent development, then you are probably thought Pope's days as a key figure on the national team were over. It was too easy for some to toss Pope on the scrap heap of past-their-prime national team veterans. All it took was a disappointing 2004 in MLS, followed by an injury-plagued 2005 to drop Pope, in the opinion of some, from lock World Cup starter to someone more likely to grab a roster spot based on reputation rather than merit.

It was far more enticing to look at the national team's younger central defense prospects, players who made fans drool with their size and athleticism. Oguchi Onyewu has become a fan favorite, which is understandable given his form over the last eight months, but he wasn't the only one regarded a suitable replacement for Pope. There was Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs, Jimmy Conrad and Chad Marshall. The presence of this quintet seemed to give Arena enough options to render Pope obsolete.

If you wrote Pope off, then you probably forgot his clutch performances for the United States in the early stages of World Cup qualifying in 2004. Of course, there have been moments that left you wondering whether Pope had anything left. The U.S. team's 2-1 loss to England last May was the most obvious example. Two of Pope's mistakes led to England's goals, and he spent much of that afternoon looking lost.

That lasting image, coupled with the rise of Onyewu and reemergence of veteran Gregg Berhalter last summer, made it seem as though Pope might just fade away. Maybe two World Cups were enough. Maybe it would be better to move on without him, rather than having him be to the 2006 U.S. World Cup team what Jeff Agoos was to the 2002 squad -- a veteran whose failing form wound up making him a serious liability.

Whether you believe that Pope truly is back probably depends on whether you consider 2005 to be a product of unfortunate injuries or the first step in a steep physical decline. If you believe the latter, then you should consider Pope's form prior to the 2002 World Cup. Playing for Ray Hudson's D.C. United, Pope struggled with injuries and form much the same way he did last year, even dealing with physical issues in the months prior to the World Cup. He overcame those issues in time to not only start for the U.S. team, but to dominate, serving as the defensive anchor of Arena's quarterfinalists.

Pope's injury-plagued 2005 season made some write him off, but the irony is that last year's issues could be the reason he excels this year. He only played 20 matches for Real Salt Lake and seven for the national team last year, and the reduced wear and tear could be the reason he has looked so lively early on in 2006.

Pope certainly looked refreshed against Japan, bursting forward at every opportunity and expertly finishing Taylor Twellman's clever headed pass. It should also be considered a positive sign that Arena showed enough confidence in Pope's form to push him forward against a Japanese squad that was never going to require two center backs to stop.

Pope's offensive exploits aside, it is his poise and experience that set him apart from the rest of the American defenders vying for a trip to the World Cup. When the United States takes the field against the Czechs and Italians, Arena will want a defender who has been through his share of national team battles.

No defender has been through more than Pope, which makes him the ideal central defense partner for Onyewu, who has looked amazing, but is still inexperienced. You can rest assured that Arena will take a good look at the Onyewu-Pope pairing, perhaps when the U.S. team faces Poland on March 1 in Kaiserslautern or when the Americans face Germany in Dortmund on March 22.

Is Pope fighting for a World Cup roster spot? He is, but not in the same way others are. He is not fighting to prove he can play against top competition. He is fighting to prove that he is still one of the best defenders in American soccer history. He has found a way to prove himself before, and he appears to be very capable of proving himself once again.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com