Soccer: Veteran defender Eddie Pope will split time between RSL and the U.S. national team

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He's done this all before, the qualifying, the shuttling between pro and national teams, even the World Cup.

Twice, as a matter of fact.

And Eddie Pope still loves every minute of it.

"Of course," he said. "It's the highest level in the sport, so yeah, it's very exciting. Every time, it's exciting."

The veteran Real Salt Lake defender will play for the U.S. men's national soccer team when it meets Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, continuing a distinguished career as a stoic anchor who ranks as perhaps the most accomplished defender in U.S. soccer history.

"Without a doubt," national team coach Bruce Arena said, "he's the finest center back the U.S. has seen."

Need a reason?

Sit down for awhile.

Not only has he played in two World Cups - the disastrous last-place showing in 1998 and the redemptive quarterfinal finish in 2002 - but the 31-year-old Pope has made 67 international

appearances, more than all but two teammates on the U.S. team. He's a six-time all-star and one-time defender of the year in Major League Soccer who has won three MLS Cup championships - the first, on his own header in overtime during his rookie season in 1996.

That was also the year that Pope split time between D.C. United and the U.S. Olympic team - he was a starter during the Atlanta Games - after United made him the second pick of the inaugural MLS draft following an All-American college career at North Carolina in which he started every game the Tar Heels played.

Anything else?

Oh, yeah.

Pope found the time during his hectic rookie season to commute back to UNC to finish his degree in political science. He has been honored for his community service work, which includes the creation of the Eddie Pope Foundation in Washington and his native North Carolina, to help underprivileged children. And he has a reputation as one of the cleanest and most diplomatic players in the game, scarcely ever committing a foul or uttering a cross word.

"He's always a step ahead," RSL coach John Ellinger said.

All of that is why Pope is such a respected player.

Injuries and age perhaps have slowed him a bit from his younger prime, but the soft-spoken Pope still plays the game as if he knows exactly how it's going to unfold.

"He's a guy who has played against some of the top forwards in the world and has done well," Arena said. "He's a very experienced defender now."

Pope even swore he wasn't surprised to find a corner kick inadvertently headed right to him during an RSL game against the Los Angeles Galaxy earlier this season, allowing him to score only the ninth goal of his MLS career on a perfect header.

"Technically, he's very good with the ball," Ellinger said, "and he doesn't make mistakes with it once he gets it. Over the years, he's just become so much better aware tactically, so he's always there. He's always reading the play . . . and physically, he's tall, he's fast. And with all of the experience he's had over the years, that's why he's such a valuable commodity."

So much so that Ellinger wishes he had him for the RSL game against FC Dallas that follows the World Cup qualifying game.

But the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Pope isn't about to waste an opportunity in what could be his last World Cup cycle with the national team, especially with the game against Costa Rica being played at his new home stadium.

"To play where your pro team is, that's always good and comforting, because of the fans and things like that," he said. "That's always a good thing."

Just like Pope, and his amazing career.

Always a good thing.

Eddie Pope file

* The 6-1, 180 defender is in his 10th MLS season, acquired by RSL this year in a trade with the MetroStars.

l Considered one of the best defenders in MLS history, won the MLS Defender of the Year award in 1997 and MLS Best XI honors in 1997, 1998, 2003, 2004.

l A stalwart on U.S. team since 1996.