As part of a new weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
In the first installment, Bradley speaks with longtime MLS and US national team defender Eddie Pope, perhaps the best defender in the history of the league. A four-time MLS Best XI selection who scored the game-winning goal of the 1996 MLS Cup, Pope also appeared in three World Cups for the USMNT before he retired from the game following the 2007 MLS season.
The former D.C. United star is now the director of player relations for the MLS Players Union, a position he’s held since 2008.
BRADLEY: If you could sum it up in a few words, what does your job entail?
POPE: A million different things, but if you were to put it all under one umbrella, any issue that a player comes across, I’m overseeing those issues and trying to make life easier for the players. Basically, we’re trying to make sure their working conditions are appropriate. We want the only thing they have to worry about is playing soccer.
BRADLEY: From your playing days, how have things improved for the players?
Eddie Pope was inducted into the D.C. United Hall of Fame in 2010 after he spent his first seven seasons in MLS with the club. He says D.C. United fans supporters were "the Seattle or Portland or Sporting KC fans of their day."
POPE: It’s gotten a little bit better. Obviously, we think things could be a lot better, but there are a lot of things that maybe go unnoticed that have gotten better. For example, player appearances. A lot more thought is put into them now, so we’re not just throwing players out there on their own. Teams are thinking about their brand a lot more and they want the players representing them appropriately, so they’re putting them in the right positions. That’s a small example.
The working environment overall has improved a lot, just the stadiums and training facilities that have gone up around the league. Some teams are lagging behind, but the more teams get to the right level when it comes to facilities, the better off everyone will be.
BRADLEY: Speaking of that, even though you played for a few different MLS clubs, everyone thinks of you as a D.C. United player. How do you feel about the news that they’re going to finally be getting a new stadium?
POPE: Fingers are crossed. I hope it gets done because the most important thing to me, and I’d assume the most important thing for every single player who’s ever played for that club, would be that that D.C. United fans need to be taken care of. I think they were the Seattle or Portland or Sporting KC fans of their day. They deserve a great stadium.
When there was talk that maybe the franchise had to move, I think for all of the D.C. United alumni, our hearts sank. To think of the league without D.C. United was unimaginable. Now, it seems to be headed in the right direction.
BRADLEY: If you could cite one thing that had to change from your day, what would it be?
POPE: Just having teammates who were making $12,000 a year. That was hard to watch. To see guys working as hard as anyone on the team and having to suffer so much more, that was unacceptable to everyone. I think everyone realized that wasn’t good for the league. If you want to be perceived as a serious league, you can’t have guys making that kind of money.
Getting that minimum salary up was, and still is, a major priority for us. From the first day I took this job, that was a priority for me, helping the guys on the bottom.
BRADLEY: Well, that’s an interesting launching point for this next question. Obviously, the big story so far in MLS is the signing of Clint Dempsey to a contract reported to be the biggest in league history. What’s it like to see an American sign such a contract?
POPE: It’s a sign that we’re headed in the right direction, that the training wheels are off. Letting a team like Seattle loose to spend the money, in an effort to make MLS a more respected league in the eyes of fans, players and other teams around the world.
I think Clint is the right guy for this. The players’ response has been great. We all love seeing a guy who is clearly in the prime of his career coming back to MLS and making the statement that this isn’t a retirement league. It’s a league that’s trying to climb the ranks.
BRADLEY: So much is written and said about the deal; is it good or bad? Obviously, it’s good for Dempsey and his family and it’s good for MLS, but is it good for Dempsey as a player?
POPE: I think It’s important for guys to do what they want to do. If they want to be home and playing in front of their friends and family but still make as much money as they can make in Europe and help grow their league, clearly they’re doing the right thing.
I’ve heard the comments that he shouldn’t be here because the World Cup is coming. I hear people wondering if he’ll get the right level of competition to prepare. In 2002, over half of us were MLS players and we were able to compete at an extremely high level and do very well.
Pope says that most players have received Clint Dempsey's recent signing with positive reviews: "We all love seeing a guy who is clearly in the prime of his career coming back to MLS and making the statement that this isn’t a retirement league."
(USA Today Sports)
BRADLEY: Still, most guys who go to Europe, especially to places like the Premier League, say there’s a difference. There’s more on the line on a day to day basis than in MLS. Do you think about that aspect at all when you think about Dempsey being back in MLS?
POPE: Clint’s personality, whenever he steps on the field, he gives his all. And let’s not forget, it was MLS that prepared Clint to go to the Premier League and score a lot of goals. Along the same lines, we’ve seen Landon go over at the end of a very long MLS season and excel for Everton, so much so that they want him to come back every year. Something’s happening here in MLS that is helping players go to Europe and do well.
BRADLEY: Do you ever look back with any regrets that you played your entire professional career in MLS and never ventured to Europe?
POPE: No, I was able to get my experience playing in World Cups against great players and teams. So going to Europe just wasn’t something that tugged at me like it does at some players. One thing that’s changed now is that it’s just such a smaller world than when I was trying to choose my career path. You can jump on the internet and feel like you’re home. It was different.
For me, I was happy to hear that Borussia Dortmund wanted me, or that Ajax wanted me. That was flattering enough for me, but it wasn’t something I felt I needed to do in order to become a complete player. I took pride in MLS and wanted it to become one of the best leagues. And in my current position, I’m stil trying to chase that dream.