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The Butler Did It

He was on line registering for classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, looking to complete the degree he started to pursue at North Carolina and then at St. John's when his cell phone rang.On the other end was his former life, asking for another chance.Popik, who was a backup keeper for the Galaxy last year, was invited into training camp with the United States men's national team for a World Cup qualifier in Trinidad and Tobago Feb. 9. It's an opportunity of a lifetime for Popik, who competed with U.S. youth teams on the Under-17, Under-18 and Under-20 levels, but one that comes with a soccer bag full of controversy.Popik is a replacement player. That's the nice term for it.Scab is another.He is among more than 20 players at the Home Depot Center - an irony not lost on Popik - who accepted U.S. Soccer's invitation to the training camp. Most others, including every MLS player called, declined.That's because the U.S. National Soccer Players Association is embroiled in a nasty salary dispute with U.S. Soccer.The players want a substantial raise. They have been paid for the past two years under the terms of an agreement that expired in December, 2002.U.S. Soccer has proposed an incentive-based contract that would increase the amount for 2003-2006 to $14.4 million, a hike of about 38 percent, U.S. Soccer General Secretary Dan Flynn said Monday.The players association has countered with a proposal demanding $21.8 million, he said.Should talks continue to stall, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kasey Keller and the rest of the stars who helped lead the United States' magical run in the 2002 World Cup will be watching Popik and others play in Trinidad.While Popik accepted the invitation to camp, former St. John's teammates Chris Wingert and Jeff Matteo declined. Wingert, who was a starter on the Under-23 national team's failed Olympic qualifying bid last year, is starting his second season with the Columbus Crew."I realized the players who are sitting out have their reasons," Wingert said. "I felt that playing for the country is an opportunity of a lifetime. Hopefully I'll get that opportunity under different circumstances."Matteo, who played for the Crew as well as the MetroStars, is currently in the United Soccer League's First Division (a minor league equivalent to Triple A baseball). But he thought he might hurt his chances of returning to MLS by becoming one of the replacement players.But that's not Popik's concern."For me, it was a pretty simple decision," Popik said from an undisclosed Manhattan Beach hotel, between training sessions Tuesday. "If I were in MLS, I'd probably have a different view. But I'm not collecting a paycheck from MLS; I'm not loyal to anyone. I couldn't pass up on playing for the national team and playing soccer again."His future in soccer is literally day-to-day. Popik has a chance, and word is he's the favorite, to be the starting U.S. keeper in Trinidad. But if the U.S. Soccer and the players association come to an agreement, Popik and the others will be sent packing."You never know where life takes you," Popik said. "It might be my last time or it could lead to something better."Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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