Glories of the past and the memorable personalities that created them are just one reason D.C. United boast some of the most passionate fans in MLS. And those supporters will be treated to another worthy tribute at halftime of DC’s match against the LA Galaxy on Sunday night.
That’s when Eddie Pope will be inducted into United’s Hall of Tradition, joining club legends like Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes in a fitting acknowledgement of his historic contributions to the Black-and-Red.
For years, the rangy defender anchored the back line for United as well the US National Team. His game-winning, extra-time goal in the inaugural MLS Cup championship still stands as an iconic moment not only for the club, but for the league and the American soccer community as a whole.
Pope went on to carve out a host of other achievements over his distinguished career. But almost 15 years later, that fateful header at a rain-lashed Foxboro Stadium remains at the front of his mind when asked about his favorite United memories.
“For me, that game was the start of all the tradition that D.C. United holds today,” said Pope in a wide-ranging interview with MLSsoccer.com on Friday. “For all those guys who were around in the early years, the good feeling is that the club is still so successful – it’s still one of the classiest clubs in the league.
"It’s fun to have been one of the pioneers that helped found the club and to see where it is today. What’s even more exciting is where the club will be in say, 20, 25 years. So to have been there at the very, very beginning is just a great feeling.”
United made Pope their first-ever college draft pick and despite his rookie season being interrupted by participation in the US Olympic Team, he quickly grew into one of the league’s most dominating defenders. Beyond a gaudy list of awards, that excellence was further reflected in 82 National Team appearances and an important role in three World Cup squads.
Sunday night’s honor is made all the more poignant by the presence of Galaxy boss Bruce Arena, who coached Pope at the club, Olympic and full international levels and still draws glowing praise from him today.
“As a young player, you could say I won the lottery on that one,” said Pope of Arena’s tutelage at United. “That was probably the best environment that there was in the league at that time. The way that I grew in his environment was exceptional, and I think it prepared me for all the other things I would have to face in my career.
"Players used to ask me what it was like to play for Bruce – everybody wanted to play for him, and everyone wanted to know what it was like. For me, that’s probably the biggest compliment that he could receive.”
Pope was traded to the MetroStars, DC’s leading rivals, in 2002 and ended his career with Real Salt Lake, where he brought veteran leadership to an expansion team wracked by growing pains. Looking back, he readily admits that leaving the club he helped build was a painful process.
“It was difficult,” recalled Pope. “I felt like I was leaving something that was special, something that I helped to establish.”
He himself has influenced the lives of hundreds of young people in D.C. and in his native North Carolina with the Eddie Pope Foundation, a non-profit which provides (among other things) guidance, resources and playing opportunities for underprivileged children.
“We’re in our 11th year now in North Carolina and it’s been going very, very well," noted Pope. "We’ve even had some kids who have gotten scholarships – kids who never even would’ve thought of going to college – who are now moving on to college. Almost every single one of our kids are on the A/B honor roll and we are now looking at trying to start a chapter up here in the Virginia area.”
In January 2008 Pope became the director of player relations for the MLS Players Union and immersed himself in the protracted negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement. After months of frustration, a deal was struck on the eve of the current season and Pope has since been working to help clubs and players make a smooth transition to the new CBA.
“It’s gratifying to know that I can help a young player out as well as an older player out, and protect these guys and make sure that all they have to worry about at the end of the day is just playing soccer,” he said.
Pope lives in Virginia with his wife Corina and their two children, Emilio (age 8) and Viviana (age 4), who have already begun their own careers in the beautiful game.