This weekend's doubleheader in Salt Lake is being billed as the biggest international sporting event in Utah since the 2002 Winter Olympics. There's no doubt the first half of the twinbill, which matches up the U.S. men's national team and Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match, is the crown jewel.
In the 2002 Olympics, Utahns found a hometown hero to root for in Tristan Gale, who wound up as the gold medalist in the women's skeleton. This time around they are hoping Real Salt Lake's Eddie Pope can provide some heroics of his own.
"It is always fun to play at home," Pope said. "When you play at home the crowd is behind you and you want to give them what they want."
The veteran of two World Cups, Pope has 67 caps under his belt and that experience has helped to him develop a reputation as one of the best defenders ever to play for the U.S. national team.
"He is the finest center back the United States has ever produced," said national team manager Bruce Arena.
Pope's rise to the pinnacle in U.S. soccer really began in his rookie season, the inaugural season of MLS. Out of the University of North Carolina, where he won first-team All-America honors, he capped off a tremendous season for D.C. United when he headed home the extra-time winner to give Arena's team the first MLS Cup. It was the first of three MLS Cups won by United during his time, and began his nearly ever-present status with the U.S. national team.
With Pope likely to earn his 68th cap this weekend, RSL will miss him in the second half of the doubleheader when they take on Western Conference leader FC Dallas.
"You are always going to miss Pope, his leadership and his abilities," said RSL coach John Ellinger.
Pope's teammates know that when he is gone it leaves a big hole in their lineup.
"He is a leader on this team," said Real striker Jason Kreis. "Just having him on the field brings the level of the team up a bit."
That boost is what Pope has given the national team's back line since he earned his first cap in 1996.
"Eddie is a good player to have back there," said fellow U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley. "He has a lot of experience and you can't buy that."
David Hale is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.