Selection of This Pope One of Great Vision

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vision is a word that has a special meaning in sports.

It has nothing to do with eyesight, but refers instead to a player's ability to instantly see the range of options open to him on the field at any given moment.

Eddie Pope has great vision.

If he did not, he would not have been selected as Major League Soccer's defender of the year in 1997.

Nor, on Wednesday, would he have been the surprising--and surprisingly popular--winner of the Honda player-of-the-year award as the U.S. national team's outstanding player.

But Pope won, beating out midfielder Claudio Reyna and goalkeeper Kasey Keller in the closest race in the seven-year history of the award, voted on by 190 soccer writers and broadcasters across the U.S.

The final tally: Pope 169 points, Reyna 165 and Keller 130.

Pope's selection is surprising because he is the only one of the finalists playing in the United States.

Keller, who put on a magnificent performance Tuesday night as the U.S. defeated Brazil, 1-0, in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, is a starter for Leicester City in the English Premier League.

Reyna, who sat out Tuesday's game because of a slight hamstring strain, is the playmaker for VfL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga.

Pope, meanwhile, has yet to make the transition from American to European soccer, although that journey seems inevitable given his talents.

For the past two years, the 24-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., has been a defensive stalwart for two-time MLS champion Washington D.C. United. Los Angeles fans will recall him as the player who scored the winning goal in overtime against the Galaxy in the 1996 MLS title game.

Keller, for one, believes Pope could be playing in England or Germany or Italy or any other top-flight European league.

"Playing in Europe for any player is going to be a benefit," Keller said Wednesday. "If you look at the top Brazilians, they're playing in Europe. If you look at the top everybody, they're playing in Europe.

"I mean, it would be like a European player [wondering if he should] play basketball in Italy or come to the NBA. There's no comparison.

"The key, though, is it has to be the right circumstances. It has to be a position where Eddie's going to play. At this point in his career, it's fine training with somebody, but the key is to play.

"He has the ability to hold his own [in Europe]. You never know until you do it--there's a lot of circumstances involved--but I think he can play there. I don't think there's any question about that. It's just a matter of getting the right environment first."

Pope has been playing soccer since he was 6. He was an all-state player in high school in both soccer and football (with a 48-yard field goal to his credit) and also played baseball.

But it was soccer that captured his imagination and is likely to take him around the world. Already, he has played for the U.S. in the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995 and the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"I owe a lot to my dad for this award," he said Wednesday. "He was actually my first coach. He didn't know much about soccer, but he did everything he could to find out. He was always there with me in the beginning and he's still there now, so I owe a lot to my family."

Pope broke onto the national team in 1996 and has been used as a left back, right back and central defender.

"I'm most comfortable in the middle, but I'll play wherever he [Coach Steve Sampson] puts me," he said. "That's my job. First of all, it's just an honor to be on the national team and you're lucky to get in the game, so you play wherever he puts you."

Pope's versatility, his calm temperament and ability to read the game well make him invaluable to the U.S. team.

He also has the speed and willingness to go forward in attack, demonstrated by his goals against Canada and Mexico in World Cup '98 qualifying play.

The challenge of playing in France this summer has caused Pope to temporarily suspend his pursuit of a career in law, although he is close to earning his degree from North Carolina.

"I tried to continue going to school when I first started, but just the pressure of being on the national team made it really difficult," he said.

"But just the way my teammates accepted me made it easier. The other defenders were willing to help me and give me advice.

"I was asking Alexi [Lalas] questions last night [against Brazil]. I'm not afraid of asking questions. They're nice enough to point things out to me because they have more experience than I do.

"If I'm going to be here with this team, that's how I have to learn. I have to ask questions."

Helping shut out world champion Brazil was particularly satisfying for Pope.

"That was the team that when you're little you'd see a move that they do and you'd go outside and try to do it," he said. "They were always the flashy team, the team with all the moves and all the flair.

"I think every kid growing up, every competitive player wants to play against Brazil. It's an opportunity to get better and it's an opportunity to do something great.

"I think as a national team we did that last night."

The victory put the U.S. into the Gold Cup final Sunday against the winner of tonight's Mexico-Jamaica semifinal.

All of Pope's fellow defenders on the U.S team have played abroad--Lalas in Italy, Jeff Agoos and Thomas Dooley in Germany, Marcelo Balboa in Mexico and Mike Burns in Denmark.

Is that a road he will follow?

"I don't know," he said. "Right now, everything's fine [with D.C. United]. But if a [foreign] team shows interest and that's the best thing for me, then sure, I'll be gone in a minute."

Eddie Pope might have good vision, but even the U.S. team's player of the year cannot see what's over the horizon.

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