Between meetings with congressional leaders Monday, President Obama honored the reigning MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Players, coaches and club officials, as well as billionaire team owner Stan Kroenke, wore matching gray suits. With the cup trophy to his side, Obama spoke for about five minutes. He saluted the Rapids’ improbable playoff run last fall and made an effort to mention several players by name, including Pablo Mastroeni — Obama didn’t try to pronounce his last name — and Mac Kandji, who tore a knee ligament on the winning sequence of extra time against FC Dallas in the final last November.
Obama was presented with a No. 10 jersey.
“That is me and Messi. We’re right up there.”
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After the speech, Obama shook hands with everyone. Second-year midfielder Ross LeBauex brought with him a copy of Obama’s autobiography and asked to have it signed. LeBauex told him he, too, was from the south side of Chicago.
After the ceremony, the Rapids changed into team gear and led a clinic on the South Lawn for children from military families.
The Rapids’ visit was particularly special for forward Conor Casey and his mother, Susan, a former Denver City Council member who was Gary Hart’s presidential campaign manager in the 1980s and worked for the John Kerry campaign in 2004. Both of Casey’s parents were in the audience Monday.
In 1995, Susan’s Denver campaign theme was: “A Soccer Mom for City Council” — a political catchphrase that entered the presidential election vernacular a year later.
“I grew up with politics in the house,” Conor said. “She was super excited. It’s kind of ironic that she spent her whole life in politics and the first time she comes to the White House is because of her athlete son, not politics.”
Mastroeni made his second White House visit; his first was with the U.S. national team to meet President Bush in 2002.
“It’s a little different this time: We got the tour that we didn’t really get last time and, more importantly, sharing the day with military kids. The president speaking, lighting up the room, bringing soccer out onto the lawn and taking it all in, it’s a pretty special day.”
Asked what it meant, as a naturalized citizen, to have such an opportunity, Argentine-born Mastroeni said: “I relived all the hard times my family had, to come over and growing up in this country and the opportunity it gave me to play soccer. Even to this day, anytime the national anthem is played, I replay my whole life and am so grateful to this country to give me the opportunity. To come here in front of, if not the most powerful man, one of the more wonderful people in his position, it all comes full circle. It was almost surreal to be in front of him.”
As for the White House visit coming less than 24 hours since a 4-1 loss at the Columbus Crew, “The moment we got on the plane this morning, it was all out of memory,” Mastroeni said. In the future, “I will never remember [the loss]. I couldn’t tell you what day it happened, what the score was, but an event like this will last a lifetime and I can share with my kids. It’s a moment I will forever cherish.”
Rapids Coach Gary Smith had a harder time putting aside the defeat.
“For the players, it’s been a wonderful distraction from the result. It was a little bit tough for me to swallow, that’s for sure, and it’s taken much of the day to get over what happened, but nevertheless, it’s a day to remember.”
So did the approaching White House visit contribute to Sunday’s poor performance?
“There’s no rhyme or reason sometimes,” Smith said. “I would think the guys wanted to do well last night and come here in a nice frame of mind. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. Nevertheless, I believe they all got as much as they possibly could today because who knows when it will possibly happen again — if ever.”