The higher education of Eddie Pope has among its notes a nasty, supposedly intimidating whack to the face from the forward he was defending a few minutes after the start of the U.S. national soccer team's startling 3-0 defeat of Austria in Vienna on April 22.
His face stinging and play having shifted upfield, Pope noted the blow to nearby team captain and his roommate on that trip, U.S. sweeper Thomas Dooley, 37, a veteran of nine years in the German Bundesliga and Pope mentor.
"I said, 'Yes, Eddie, that's what I told you,' " recalled Dooley, who had encountered Austrian forward Anton Polster before. "Polster tries to hit you all the time, talk to you, and kick you. When he touches the ball, you have to [let him know] that you're breathing right behind him. After a while, these people quit."
Lesson learned. Early in the second half, a sub replaced Polster, who joined Costa Rica's Paulo Wanchope, Jamaica's Deon Burton, and Mexico's Zague as world-class offensive threats marked out of a game by Pope.
The lanky defender only seven years removed from balancing high school soccer and football in High Point, N.C., will be at Washington's RFK Stadium, where he normally plays for Major League Soccer's D.C. United, on Saturday as the national team faces Scotland, the last game for both teams before the World Cup.
If you like the idea of watching a young player probably about to hit the big time, follow Pope, 25, in France next month.
For one thing, he may be the first American to kick a 48-yard field goal -- which he did in a high school game -- but give up American football for the world's game. Another reason, in Dooley's words: "What he is doing now for his age is great. The good thing about him is that he listens to the older players and tries to learn."
The reason, Pope explains, is simple: "I have a lot to learn, and players like Thomas have so much experience."
Two weeks ago, U.S. coach Steve Sampson predicted good things for Pope, whom he had no trouble making an instant starter in last year's rough-and-tumble World Cup qualifiers.
The World Cup, Sampson said, "gives players an opportunity to shine against the best in the world. In the group we are in, [with games against Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia,] Eddie will be tested significantly. I think Eddie will excel and I think there will be offers forthcoming after this World Cup."
Such has been Pope's play in his 2 1/2 pro seasons that not only will he start in his first World Cup, he signed a new, multi-year contract and got a huge raise this spring, moving him from five figures to reportedly near MLS's top scale of $232,500 a year. He also got a new deal from adidas, part of which will be a rowhouse-high mural of him in his D.C. United uniform, as well as money for a league Pope backs for kids in Washington.
Pope also thanked his employers and professed his belief in MLS, saying he wanted to continue playing in the United States. But if, as many expect, Pope meets Sampson's expectations, some of Europe's wealthiest teams seem likely to come knocking on his northern Virginia door, and budget-minded MLS, which owns his contract, may need to listen.
Few soccer people who have watched Pope rapidly blossom from college kid into national-team fixture -- voted 1997's top U.S. pro, in fact, as well as MLS's best 1997 defender -- doubt his ability to compete in the world's richest leagues.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Pope's obvious playing strengths are speed, doggedness, and ability to respond coolly to dangerous situations, making just the right pass or kick to safe territory.
Pope quickly earned a reputation both in MLS and on the national team as a defender with a dangerous offensive head, too, particularly on restarts around the goal. From there, Pope -- athletic and elusive -- headed in D.C. United's overtime game-winner in the first MLS Cup, and a late goal that tied favored Mexico, 2-2, last April.
Pope played his first full international against Trinidad & Tobago in 1996, but U.S. Soccer had been grooming him for the international game. He was on 1994's Under-23 team that played in Spain, in the 1995 Pan-American Games in Argentina, and on the 1996 Olympic team.
Now about to compete in the sport's pinnacle event, Pope even stars in a new TV commercial, more testament to his soaring success. In the ad, he -- and American soccer -- takes on a hoard of world attackers.
Hyperbole? Sure. But fun, and not lacking an element of truth. That's what Pope likes about it.
If you're going
Who: U.S. women's national team vs. New Zealand, U.S. men's national team vs. Scotland
Where: RFK Stadium, Washington
When: Saturday; women's game, 11 a.m.; men's game, 1: 30 p.m.
What: Send-off match for the World Cup for the American men. First time both the U.S. men's and women's national teams have played a doubleheader.
TV: Women's game, ESPN2. Men's game, chs. 13, 7.
Tickets: 888-947-KICK, or Ticketmaster, 410-481-SEAT
Pub Date: 5/28/98