WASHINGTON — Real Salt Lake's improbable run to last year's MLS Cup championship earned the team a visit to the White House on Friday, and even President Barack Obama couldn't help but joke about how unlikely the title was.
"You qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season with a losing record—that's cutting it a little close," said Obama at a ceremony honoring the 2009 champs in the East Room of the White House on Friday morning.
Obama honored 34 members of Real Salt Lake in front of an assembled crowd that included Sen. Bob Bennett just prior to departing for the Gulf of Mexico to address the BP oil disaster.
"You beat your biggest rival, took down the defending champions on your way to the title game, and with the cup on the line you held two of the game's biggest stars (David Beckham and Landon Donovan) scoreless in regulation and went on to win in a shoot-out," Obama said. "All of which goes to show that in Major League Soccer there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion."
The official White House visit was a first for most of the players, and was the highlight of a weeklong stay in Washington, as the team plays two games against D.C. United.
"It's definitely a privilege to be in front of such a powerful man and for him to recognize our club and Utah. It's so exciting for us to be here," said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who previously visited the White House with D.C. United when George W. Bush was president.
With RSL coach Jason Kreis standing by his side, Obama spoke from the podium for about five minutes. Behind him were 33 other members of last year's championship team, including co-owners Dave Checketts and Dell Loy Hansen, president Bill Manning, general manager Garth Lagerwey, 18 players — including ex-player Yura Movsisyan — and 10 members of the medical and technical staff.
"Welcome to the White House and congratulations on winning your first MLS Cup championship, and for bringing the state of Utah its first professional sports title in 40 years—that's a pretty big deal," Obama said.
The president was pretty candid while speaking to the team, breaking from his script during several light-hearted moments.
One of those moments came when he tried to highlight RSL forward Robbie Findley's accomplishments last season. When he turned to congratulate him though, the president was reminded by Kreis that Findley is already in South Africa with the U.S. National Team preparing for the World Cup.
"He's already left. I just realized I met Robbie last week," said Obama, who welcomed the U.S. National Team to the White House a week ago.
While praising the "team is the star" approach of Kreis, Obama singled out the accomplishments of Findley and Rimando, along with Real Salt Lake's owner.
"I want to congratulate Dave Checketts for his leadership and dedicating his career to expanding the world of professional sports," Obama said.
Afterward while addressing the media outside the White House, Checketts said, "It was just amazing. To be with this group of guys, the way they've handled themselves, the way they've celebrated the championship and what it means to the people of Utah. It's a great day."
Obama applauded the team made up of players from Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Haiti, Holland, Jamaica and the United States for overcoming their language and cultural barriers to win the championship.
He reiterated that because of teams like Real Salt Lake, soccer continues to grow in popularity in the United States every year, "and as the father of soccer-playing daughters, I can tell you it shows no signs of slowing down," he said.
After he was done speaking, Obama was presented with a No. 10 Real Salt Lake jersey by Checketts with the name Obama on the back. He then posed for a photo with the team while holding the MLS Cup, and shook the hands of the remaining gathered RSL members before quickly exiting the room.
Following the presentation, the team filed back into the Green Room and waited for its private tour of the White House.
"It was awesome. A little bit more than we expected. Coming into these things you're so honored and you have expectations about what it's going to be like, and then to meet somebody that seems so down to earth about everything was really, really cool," Kreis said.
Kreis had the unique opportunity of being behind closed doors with the president for about two minutes after the team filed into the East Room. While waiting to be introduced, Obama commented about how fit Kreis looked, and Kreis returned the favor.
During his speech, Obama said Kreis is one of the rare coaches he's interacted with at various championship ceremonies who could still play their respective sport.