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Aug 2, 2007

Pope: I love playing in the U.S.

Former U.S. national team soccer defender Eddie Pope turned down football and a prospective legal career to play a sport that was relatively unpopular in mainstream America at the time.

It turned out to be the right choice. Pope had a decorated career at the University of North Carolina and was drafted by D.C. United. He also represented his country in the Olympics, played in three World Cups. Pope is one of the most accomplished defenders in U.S. history.

Pope announced earlier this year that he would retire from soccer at the conclusion of the current MLS season. He spoke with ESPNsoccernet about his illustrious career.

ESPNsoccernet: How did it all start for you?

EP: For me when I was younger, I wanted to play football, and soccer was not the main sport. My parents wanted me to try soccer, so I did. I played football, soccer, and baseball when I was a lot younger. When it was time for me to focus solely on one, soccer became that one sport.

ESPNsoccernet: Why did you choose soccer?

EP: It was not planned, and remember, when I was younger there was no MLS. My original plan was to attend college and go to law school. There are tons of lawyers in my family and that was attractive to me as a kid. So I was heading for the working-class route, until I got to college. Now my scholarship was for football, but I walked-on for soccer.

ESPNsoccernet: What was your position in football?

EP: I was a place kicker and did the kickoffs. It was somewhat boring because I stood around a lot, but soccer gave me a chance to display more athleticism.

ESPNsoccernet: Who were your idols as a kid?

EP: My idols were my parents; those were the people I looked up to. A lot of people name sports figures and athletes. For me there was no soccer on television; it was nowhere to be found. My father built yachts and my mother was a schoolteacher. I recognized at an early age that they [my parents] worked hard to give my siblings and me everything that we needed and I admired that.

ESPNsoccernet: If there was no soccer on television, what inspired you to pick up the sport?

EP: I was having fun at it. A lot of my classmates played in the same league as I did. So every year it was always interesting to see if we would all make the same team. I'd never thought about it as a job, or an occupation for the future; I was just having fun in the moment at that time and that's why I continued to play it.

ESPNsoccernet: Just like Cobi Jones at UCLA, you were a walk-on at North Carolina, was it difficult, and how did that happen?

EP: There were no problems. I'd gone to a very small high school, and we had no notoriety and at the end of the day, there was no money for me soccer wise. The understanding was that I would be on the team but as a walk-on.

A European player was supposed to show up, but decided not to come and he was on scholarship. What happened next was I took my football scholarship and broke it in half and the same with soccer. So I still had two scholarships but that meant both teams had extra money, which they had no problem with.

After the first year, I ended up redshirting with football because I was injured. That first year was tough playing both sports. The soccer coach spoke with me on picking one because I was playing two sports. Sometimes I was doing four practices a day [two for each sport]. He told me I could be mediocre in two sports or be really good in one. He said you can make a choice. Then I ended up choosing soccer after that.

For me, I liked soccer and I enjoyed it more. Maybe if I played a position where I was more involved, and not indifferent, who knows, I might have selected football.

Another thing that made my decision somewhat easy was the Olympics; I knew it was coming up. I had always wanted to be an Olympian and I knew soccer was the sport that could possibly get me there. It was a huge accomplishment on my part making that 1996 team.

ESPNsoccernet: When did it dawn on you that you had a career in soccer?

EP: It was not until after the Olympics and Bruce [Arena] came and told me he was thinking about drafting me to come play for him at D.C. United. Then I realized that this could be a profession and career for me. Obviously at that point I had no idea I would play in three World Cups.

ESPNsoccernet: You were drafted 2nd overall by D.C. Describe your experience with the team?

EP: I was very fortunate to be in a good situation. I know the team struggled in the beginning but we ended up winning that first year. It was a great team from top to bottom with great players like Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Jeff Agoos. Those were the star players at that time and I was able to learn from all of them. I was also lucky to be with an impressive organization earlier on. We had a great training facility, even better than some teams have now.

I learned how to be a professional on the field; that was the biggest part for me. Also from a skill-level standpoint, these guys were obviously so good they made you better. They took time to point out the positives and also outlined the mistakes as well and how not to make those mistakes again. It's the same thing that I'm doing with younger guys that I'm playing with. They made sure not to kill your confidence earlier on but build them up.

ESPNsoccernet: How do you impart your knowledge onto the young players?

EP: The one good thing is that most of these guys are further along than I was when I was their age. Now that was 11 years ago, and that's the way it should be. If not, we are not doing something right. Some of them, you have to figure out which you can be hard on and also which ones do not respond to that. Maybe some need more encouragement than others. I think they all value someone talking to them, helping them and giving them advice.

ESPNsoccernet: Was there a desire to play abroad on your part?

EP: It was not one of those things that really enticed me that much. I was really excited about the MLS when it started. I loved playing in the U.S. and I just didn't have that huge desire to go overseas like some young guys do have now. Some of them don't also -- they're just like me. I was always happy to be in America; I enjoyed having my family at the games and my friends coming to watch me play.

ESPNsoccernet: What will it take for soccer to get over the hump in America?

EP: I think it will take time. If you look at some of the teams in Europe; they were established in the 1800s and 1900s. They have clubs that are over 100 years old while our league started in 1996. It's just going to take a while and the biggest thing is that the generation that controls the spending right now all have football, baseball and basketball in their background. Now obviously more kids play soccer compared to any other sport. As they become older, and play vital roles in corporate decision-making, which is a matter of time, then the sport will get bigger.

ESPNsoccernet: Real Salt Lake is currently going through a funk. How do you get out of the current predicament?

EP: It is difficult, and we are in a tough situation. The players and coaching staff realize we need some help. We have a couple roster spots that we can fill along with the Designated Player spot.

ESPNsoccernet: What's your perception of the Designated Player rule? The attraction so far has been players allegedly on the decline.

EP: It's a good move because it is attracting positive attention to the league and also the sport in general in the United States. It remains to be seen what happens when David Beckham finally gets on the field and helps the Galaxy.

Obviously the long-term goal is to attract younger and talented players from Europe to want to move to MLS. Again this will all take time because most of the leagues around have a head start on MLS. The most important thing is not ending up like the NASL days.

ESPNsoccernet: What's next for you after you retire from soccer this season? Pursue the law dream you once had or stay in soccer?

EP: I would like to stay in soccer at some level. Having played for so long, it would be very difficult to walk away and enter another phase by doing something totally different. Now having said that, who knows what's going to happen. But I would like to remain in this sport.

Sulaiman Folarin is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers MLS and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be contacted at sulaiman4real@yahoo.com.