Pope pondering post-player life

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- For the first time he can remember, Eddie Pope's future doesn't include soccer. Not yet, anyway.

The veteran defender is retiring, ending a career that included three World Cups with the U.S. national team and the entire existence of Major League Soccer. So now what?

"That's a good question," he said.

Pope announced in June that this would be his last season, which ended quietly Saturday when Real Salt Lake visited Colorado.

Pope has had several months to reflect and think about what he wants to do next, but so far hasn't come up with an answer.

There's no rush. Pope finally has some time to relax and enjoy more time with his 4-year-old son, Emilio, and wife, Corina. He's leaning toward staying in MLS in some capacity, perhaps in a front office job. With his credentials and experience, somebody will be offering.

"He's somebody that our organization and every organization would want to keep involved," said Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who has known Pope as an opponent, teammate and this season as one of his players.

Kreis, who retired as a player to become RSL's coach in May, said he would love to have Pope back for one more season as the three-year-old club tries to develop some success. Real (5-15-9) has struggled through three seasons and will finish with the worst record in the Western Conference this season.

"I tried my best to get him to stay," Kreis said. "He's the best defender this league has ever produced."

But Pope, who will turn 34 on Christmas Eve, knew early this season that this was the end. The physical toll has become too much. He retired from the national team last summer after 11 years of international soccer, including the 1996 Olympics and the World Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

Pope played in nine World Cup matches and 31 qualifiers for the U.S. team. Former national team coach Bruce Arena said Pope was probably the best defender to come from the United States. With that kind of talent, Pope could have gone and played in Europe and been a star where the game is the biggest sport there is.

But the rock star treatment wasn't much of a draw for the quiet and composed Pope, who leaves the spotlight to his teammates.

Pope had offers from European clubs, but thought he'd get more playing time if he stayed home. The choice was sit on the bench in front of a raucous European crowd or play in obscurity in the latest attempt to establish a professional soccer league in the United States.

So while juggling classes at North Carolina, where he started every game of his college career, Pope joined D.C. United in the brand-new MLS and played with the U.S. team in the Atlanta Olympics.

The rookie defender ended that season with a goal in the 96th minute against Los Angeles to clinch the first MLS title.

Defenders don't score a lot of goals, let alone game winners in a title game, and that will always be one of Pope's fondest memories. But more than that, Pope will always remember the U.S. team's run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.

After going 0-3 in 1998, the Americans redeemed themselves with wins over Portugal and Mexico while advancing to the final eight in the world's biggest tournament. The Americans still aren't World Cup contenders, but are definitely more of a threat than they used to be.

"I think we gained a lot of respect. I think that's the most important thing -- starting to gain respect," Pope said. "And from that, that obviously allowed some guys to go to Europe and started to put a lot of eyes on our league and on our national team."

Pope has been with RSL since the club's first season in 2005. He's the team captain this year and was honored along with Kreis with a video tribute to the MLS pioneers Monday night in RSL's final home game.

When Pope came into the league, the teams were playing in cavernous football stadiums that weren't designed for soccer. It was a new venture and nobody was quite sure how it would fare. Twelve seasons later, soccer-only stadiums are found throughout the league or are being built.

RSL's new stadium is scheduled to open next summer. Although he won't play in it, the 10-time All-Star and three-time champion definitely had a role in establishing the club.

"Every now and then I think I've reflected on the things that I've done. The fun that I've had and how fortunate I've been. Things like that," Pope said. "But it's maybe even been a little bit more of 'what am I going to get into next?' That's probably consumed my mind more than looking backward."

And he'll take his time figuring out his future. But he is certain that it won't involve playing.

"You kind of know when it's time to move on," Pope said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-10-18-07 1540MDT

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