Dec 24, 2012, 6:00 PM EDT
Eddie Pope has become a litmus test. Recognize his greatness, and you’ve been around. Remember him as the player you saw in Major League Soccer? At least you’ve been here that long.
Don’t know him at all? Oh, boy. Let me get the first round. We’re going to be here a while, because when I wear a U.S. Men’s National Team kit with “Pope, 23″ on the back, it’s a statement.
He’s not on television every week like some of his peers, so the relative anonymity for the former national team defender makes some sense. His current role as Director of Player Relations for MLS’s Players Union also keeps him out of the limelight, a place he probably prefers, though it keeps his legacy from being trumpeted. Because he was always a quite person, many fans don’t remember how truly brilliant he was.
Lalas got the fame. And Marcelo Balboa got the goals. All Pope got was respect.
Many of his teammates still refer to him as one of the most underrated talents of his generation. With the athleticism of a converted midfielder, Pope was the cornerstone of Bruce Arena’s back lines, his skill, speed, and athleticism allowing him to play in the middle of three-man defenses the U.S. has scarcely employed since.
He was the best defender the U.S. has ever had, and since he retired from international soccer six years ago, nobody has come particularly close.
Not everybody agrees, but these are the types of discussions born from U.S. Soccer’s mid-90s ascension, a rise that brought the program in from 40 years in the international wilderness. Who was better: Tab Ramos or Claudio Reyna? Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller? What was the best way to use Eric Wynalda? And how good would he have been if he his international career match up better with Brian McBride’s?
If you have a friend in soccer, you’ve undoubtedly talked these things through. And that’s why a classic national team kit is the ultimate holiday gift. No gift will be received better than one which says, “Friends remember other friends’ favorite national team player.” And since you’ve spent ours upon hours talking about each others’ favorites, there’ll be no doubt which kit to get.
Or if the women’s national team holds a tighter gip on your (or your friend’s) heart, there’s nothing better than finding a kit to commemorate USA `99. A “Hamm 9,” “Akers 10″ or “Lilly 13″ will earn a lot of soccer hipster cred. Even if you prefer some attachment to the current national team squad, a “Rampone 3″ is a way to subtly, snobbishly flaunt your recognition of the team’s roots.
Unfortunately, these type of gifts are difficult to come by. If you’re truly committed to getting an authentic kit, you’ll have to be persistent, checking Ebay regularly in addition to trying to track down something through more conventional stores. For example, the last time an Eddie Pope national team jersey hit the market was mid-November (though a Mia Hamm kit did clear two days ago).
And if you can’t track down an old school version, you can always customize a current kit via U.S. Soccer’s website, a move that has the underlying cache of saying, “This player? I still want him on the team today.” Because you are a knowledgable soccer fan, after all.
And for a soccer fan, there’s no better moment than opening the box you’re sure will be a sweater only to see it’s a kit – the exact opposite end of the clothing excitement spectrum. If you’re smart about it, pack the kit with the player’s name out so all the shock arrives at once. Then, as you see them hurriedly pull the jersey over their shoulders, you’ll know you’ve given the perfect soccer present.
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