CARSON, Calif. -- When Eddie Pope was 5 or 6 years old, he wanted to play football. He was too young to play in any of the local leagues, however, leaving soccer as his only option.
He's never looked back.
On Sunday, the veteran of the past two World Cups will make his 75th international appearance when the United States faces Norway at the Home Depot Center. Landon Donovan also will play in his 75th game for the U.S.
Only 21 other players, and just six other defenders besides Pope, have played 75 times for the U.S. men's team.
"It's amazing to me that I've come this far," the 32-year-old Pope said. "I never would have thought that I would've played this many games for the national team, being a country boy from North Carolina."
Pope's career began inadvertently. He said when he was about 5 or 6, he wanted to play football in a recreational program in his home of High Point, N.C.
"But they didn't have my age group yet," Pope said. "The only thing they had left was soccer. So my parents said, 'Well, do you want to try to play soccer?' I was like, 'No, I want to play football.' I was kind of stuck on that. Then I said, 'Fine, I'll try it and see if I like it.'"
Since then, Pope has established himself as one of Major League Soccer's best defenders. He was its defender of the year in 1997, won three MLS Cups with D.C. United, and made the league's "Best 11" four times.
In November, MLS celebrated its 10th season by making Pope one of three defenders on its all-decade team.
"He puts the fires out before they start," said Jimmy Conrad, the 2005 MLS defender of the year. "He's had so much experience that any time a play happens, he always seems to make the right decision. That's something I just soak up."
Pope's biggest challenge has been avoiding injuries. Last year, he missed games because of pelvic and ankle problems. Since 1999, Pope has broken a foot, sprained a toe and needed knee surgery.
But he underwent what he called a rigorous offseason regimen of running, weightlifting and stretching.
"I feel the best I've ever felt," he said. "I feel as strong as I've ever felt in my whole career and I actually feel as fast, if not faster."
Pope hopes his rejuvenation can keep him healthy for the World Cup in Germany and enhance his resume in a sport he almost ignored.
"People may think, 'Are you still hungry?'" he said. "It's kind of the opposite. You want to win more. You want to go to more World Cups. It's kind of like a drug you can't get rid of."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press