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SALT LAKE CITY (Thursday, June 14, 2007) - Real Salt Lake defender Eddie Pope today announced on ESPNews that he will end his illustrious career at the conclusion of the team's 2007 season. Recognized as one of the most influential players in Major League Soccer and U.S. Men's National Team history, the 34-year-old Pope revealed his decision prior to this evening's match against FC Dallas that this season, his 12th in Major League Soccer, will be his last.
"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," continued Pope. "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."
Arguably the greatest defender in American soccer history, Pope will leave a towering legacy upon his departure from the playing field. The University of North Carolina product justified his selection as the second overall pick in the inaugural 1996 MLS College Draft, immediately starting during his rookie season with D.C. United. While known for his steadiness and leadership in defense, it was a pair of game-winning goals - an extra-time "golden goal" in MLS Cup '96 and the clinching goal in D.C.'s InterAmerican Cup win over Vasco da Gama (Brazil) a year later - that would help United establish itself as the flagship franchise in the early years of MLS.
"On behalf of Real Salt Lake and its fans, I would like to thank Eddie Pope for his tremendous contributions to our club over the last three years," said SCP Worldwide Chairman David W. Checketts. "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. 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."
The list of individual accolades collected by Pope during his MLS career is an impressive one, a lengthy roll call that includes four spots on the prestigious, end-of-season MLS Best XI team; a record 10 MLS All-Star nods; and five honors as his respective team's top defender. However, with his team-first mentality, Pope prefers to remember the eight domestic and international trophies he collected as part of D.C. United, including three MLS Cups (1996, 1997 & 1999), a pair of Supporters Shields (1997 & 1999), the 1996 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup and InterAmerican Cup.
"Few players in this League have earned the amount of respect that Eddie Pope has, and working with him over the past three seasons it is clear to see why," said RSL Technical Director/Director of Soccer Operations John Ellinger. "Eddie's actions always speak louder than his words, but while he is a soft-spoken leader, you can be sure that everyone listens when he speaks. Eddie has a rare combination of poise, intensity, and leadership that few players in this country have ever possessed, and it will be an honor to watch him display those characteristics as he winds down his career this season."
Pope's MLS resume is impressive, but his tenure with the U.S. National Team is equally, if not more, impressive. After making his debut for the USA in November of 1996, Pope would quickly become an anchor in central defense, helping the squad through CONCACAF region qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, where he got his first taste of soccer on the world's biggest stage by starting two of the USA's three matches in the competition. Four years later at Korea/Japan 2002, Pope would be instrumental in U.S. Soccer's historic journey to the World Cup's quarterfinal round, starting all five matches during a run that brought respect and unprecedented attention to the U.S. Soccer program. Pope would retire from international soccer following his third World Cup stint last year at Germany 2006, ending his esteemed career for the U.S. with eight goals in 82 "caps" (all starts), including nine starts in World Cup play and 31 appearances in CONCACAF qualifying contests.
"Not enough can be said about what Eddie Pope means to Real Salt Lake," said RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis. "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."
A steady presence in Major League Soccer since his debut season with D.C. United in 1996, Pope will leave the League as one of only seven players to see action in each of MLS's first dozen seasons. Despite serving several stints in MLS due to international duty, Pope's longevity has been impressive, as he enters tonight's match against FC Dallas among the League's all-time leaders with 233 starts (14th), 236 games played (22nd), and 20,343 minutes played (15th). Pope has spent his professional career with three MLS sides - D.C. United (1996-2002), MetroStars (2003-2004), and Real Salt Lake (2005-present).
His accomplishments on the field are monumental, but the same can be said about his charitable feats away from the pitch. After creating the Eddie Pope Urban Soccer League in Washington D.C. in 1997, Pope expanded the scope of the project with the creation of the Eddie Pope Foundation a year later, a charitable organization that teaches the virtues of spirit, community, and education to youths in underserved areas through the sport of soccer. Pope's work with his foundation - which he also expanded to his hometown of High Point, N.C. - and numerous other charitable endeavors earned him D.C. United's Humanitarian of the Year Award in both 2000 and 2002, while his firm but fair demeanor on the field garnered Pope the 2004 MLS Fair Play Award.