Dustin Kirby had an advantageous spot at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Monday night to witness Eddie Pope's final home match he was standing right next to him.
In Real Salt Lake's second-to-last match of the 2007 season, the rookie defender made his MLS debut alongside Pope, a night he says he'll never forget despite the fact RSL lost to Houston, 1-0.
"It was definitely a big honor for me and a great learning experience," said Kirby, a rookie out of Ohio State.
The bigger honor might be what Pope said about the 22-year-old after the match.
"He played a great, great game. He is certainly one of the better defenders on the team, and I thought he did great," said Pope. "I was very happy for him to be able to get out there and show what he's capable of. He's someone that will be competing for a starting job next year, certainly."
Prior to Monday's selection in the starting 11, Kirby had been a regular with the reserve team, appearing in all nine matches this year. He also played the final 24 minutes of RSL's exhibition victory over Everton back in July.
Like all of the team's rarely used youngsters, Kirby knew that when Real was eliminated from playoff contention last month, the chances of increased playing time were good. Nonetheless, even RSL coach Jason Kreis admitted after Monday's match that he didn't think logistically Kirby would end up playing.
The situation ended up working out for Kirby.
"He got it and he took full advantage of it," Kreis said. "He did very well for himself."
As for Kirby, he thought he played pretty well but admits he could have been sharper. Considering that RSL only surrendered one goal, a pretty unfortunate one as well, the entire backline did all right for itself.
The fact Kirby is still even on an MLS roster speaks volumes for his determination. He was the third-to-last player taken in the 52-player 2007 MLS Supplemental Draft, which isn't even in the primary draft. The four-round, 52-player SuperDraft is held several days earlier and is when all the top prospects are selected.
Supplemental draft picks are generally regarded as a way for teams to pad out their training camp rosters with cheap rookies, but nothing more. RSL selected Kirby after drafting defender Haddon Kirk, midfielder Jared Kent and goalkeeper Kyle Reynish. None of the four were expected to make the roster, but Reynish and Kirby had outstanding training camps and were named to the 28-man roster.
If Kirby was three inches taller, he surely would have been a SuperDraft selection based on his fantastic career at Ohio State. However, there isn't much demand for a 5-foot-10 center back in Major League Soccer, a big reason why he nearly went undrafted.
Despite being three to four inches smaller than many center backs in MLS, Kirby has gradually carved out his niche with RSL.
"I try and be as aggressive and strong as I can be, but definitely l try (playing) smarter than everyone else," said Kirby. "I try and be one step ahead of everyone else. That's what's going to keep me at this level."It doesn't hurt either that he's been able to learn from Pope in training all season long.