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Posted: 5:07 PM- Eddie Pope was an All-American at North Carolina and training with the U.S. Olympic team when he became the second player drafted in the 1996 - and first - Major League Soccer College Draft.
Today, Pope announced he would retire at the end of this, his 12th, season in MLS. It marks the end of an era for the former national-team player, 10-time all-star and Real Salt Lake defender, who has been called the best defensive soccer player the United States has ever produced.
"I love it here, and I've had a good time playing in front of these amazing fans," Pope said. "It's been a pleasure for me, so to be able to retire here is a great thing for me. I'm very, very happy about that, to retire in such a great place.
"It's just time. You get up in the morning and you're in pain, before practice you are in pain, and after practice you are still in pain. It's certainly not a lackadaisical decision."
At age 34, Pope is one of the older players in Major League Soccer. Former teammate Jason Kreis retired earlier this season, at age 35, to take over as RSL head coach.
"He represents the spirit of this league in many ways," said MLS commissioner Don Garber, in Salt Lake City for Pope's retirement announcement, which will be made official before RSL's game against F.C. Dallas tonight at Rice-Eccles Stadium. "That we have been, particularly in this city, so excited about the quality of character of our players, it's a real point of difference for Major League Soccer and Real Salt Lake, and Eddie personifies that.
"Eddie is one of the great players in American soccer history, a guy that I have a great deal of admiration for his integrity and his great athletic skill."
Pope's only goal in MLS playoff competition came in 1996 and helped his team win the inaugural MLS Cup, in the 96th minute during a driving rain storm as D.C. defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2. Acquired by RSL in 2005 from the then MetroStars, Pope retired from international soccer in August after scoring eight goals in 82 caps for the U.S. men's national team. He started nine of a possible 11 FIFA World Cup matches in 1998, 2002 and 2006. He was part of the United States' historic run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
"Eddie is a special player and person, and we are fortunate to have built our squad around a player with such talent, character, and respect," said RSL team owner Dave Checketts. "While we will miss Eddie's contributions on the field after the season, he will always be a member of the Real Salt Lake family and hope that he will remain in the organization for years to come."
Pope, who won three MLS Cups with D.C. United, was named MLS Defender of the Year in 1997.
Garber, who came to Salt Lake City accompanied by Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis, feels Pope, who never cast his professional eye toward Europe, is a special player.
"Eddie decided when he graduated from college that he wanted to make his career, have a contribution to the growth of Major League Soccer," Garber said. "It was about building this league, leaving a legacy. So while we don't get out to a lot of these retirements events, tonight's event was one that A, we wanted to put out on national television and B, wanted to come out and show our respect for Eddie."
The game tonight will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Said Kreis: "Not enough can be said about what Eddie Pope means to Real Salt Lake. In my mind, Eddie is the best defender to ever play in Major League Soccer, but he brings so much more than his talent to the field for us. Eddie is an ideal captain, and his respect for the game, tremendous skill, and valued leadership will be crucial in us turning things around during his last season. There is no doubt our players want to help Eddie end his career on a positive note, and we look forward to nothing less than achieving that goal for him - it is the way he deserves to go out."
Gazidis remembers thinking, when he arrived in Foxborough, Mass., for the 1996 MLS Cup in the driving rain, that he expected less than 5,000 spectators to show. Nearly 34,000 sat through a game that was so wet standing water prevented the ball from rolling.
"Eddie scored an overtime goal, a golden goal and ran over to the touch line and at that time he was a young kid," Gazidis said. "Now we have young kids standing on the podium saying I always wanted to be playing for Chicago or whatever, and here is Eddie having played out his entire career since this league started and you suddenly realize, 'You know what? We've been around for a while.'"