10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS EDDIE POPE REMEMBERS IT, HIS father had first hoped to sign him up for a kids' football league, back when Eddie turned 6. Dad, a onetime high school player, figured the game was a good way to keep his young son out of trouble after school. Except for one problem: There was no football league for kids that age, recalls Pope. "So I tried soccer."
Tried indeed. Now 23, Pope has emerged as one of the most promising U.S.-bred soccer stars to lace on cleats in years. Twice captain of his University of North Carolina team (before quitting school last year to play full-time), the 6'1", 180-1b. defender started for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 and also launched his pro career that year with the D.C. United in Washington. Last October, in 50-mph winds and a hammering storm that dropped four inches of rain on the field, he scored the winning goal that earned his team the Major League Soccer championship. This year the D.C. United again reached the play-offs, but Pope and two teammates—defender Jeff Agoos and midfielder John Harkes—had more distant goals in mind as well. As members of the U.S. national team, they would soon be focusing on next year's World Cup competition in France.
For the soft-spoken Pope, whose father manages a yacht-building plant and whose mother teaches learning-disabled children, there has been scant time to savor success. Raised in High Point, N.C ("the furniture capital of the world"), Pope moved into a three-story Centerville, Va., town house last August with Canadian-born Corina Bianchi, 22, whom he met during their junior year at college. For now, there are neither pictures on the walls nor knickknacks on the shelves, and little time to shop for any. With hours of daily practice, frequent travel and, lately, offers from European teams to consider, "You just want to sit down," says Pope, "and take a deep breath."