Los Angeles Soccer: White House
President Obama teased David Beckham and Robbie Keane, recognized Landon Donovan as someone “who has done more for American soccer than just about anybody” and praised the Galaxy for having “lived up to hype” as he honored the MLS Cup champions Tuesday at the White House.
The president's rollicking address, which betrayed more than a passing knowledge of the game and the team, offered a nice respite for the struggling champions, who are 3-5-2 and haven't won in their last four games.
Instead, the focus was on last year, when the Galaxy romped to Major League Soccer's Supporters' Shield, setting a post-shootout era points record in the process, and swept through the playoffs to win their third MLS Cup title, to go with their 2002 and 2005 triumphs.
“It's an amazing tradition to have, for teams to be able to come here," Beckham told media covering the event. "Because you come out meeting the president, and it's motivation -- it motivates you to want to come back next year. I hope we do, because it's a great day, a proud day for all of us.”
Obama regaled a gathering in the East Room -- moved from the South Lawn because of a thundershower threat -- with jokes at the expense of L.A.'s two biggest foreign stars, recounted their title triumph last Nov. 20 over the Houston Dynamo, and applauded head coach Bruce Arena for taking the Galaxy “from worst to first in just four years.”
“The truth is, in America, most professional soccer players have the luxury of being able to walk around without being recognized,” the president noted. “But not these guys. This is the Miami Heat of soccer. And together, they represent one of the most talented lineups that MLS has ever seen.”
“It makes you realize that people care, people take notice,” Donovan said afterward. “At the end of the day, we’re just playing a soccer game, so I get it, there are a lot more important things going on in the world. But it’s still cool to know that you inspire people and people care about what you’re doing.”
The Galaxy ate it up on an emotional afternoon that featured a brief reunion with goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who is in MLS's substance-abuse treatment program and had been away from the team since April 27.
“It was very nice to see Josh,” Donovan said. “We're all very much encouraged to see him and see how he's doing. I know it was a big deal for him, and I think we're all really excited that he could be a part of it.”
Several figures on last year's championship team weren't invited to be part of the ceremony. Only current Galaxy players and coaches who were with the club in 2011 were honored -- newcomers sat with the audience -- and not everybody was pleased about that.
Midfielder Chris Birchall, so key in the second-leg victory over New York in the first round of the playoffs but now with the Columbus Crew, took to his Twitter account to express his unhappiness Thursday night, also mentioning retired defender Frankie Hejduk, who is now with Columbus' front office.
The Galaxy are giddy over what awaits them Tuesday, even those who've experienced this sort of thing before. Like A.J. DeLaGarza.
The fourth-year defender was honored at the White House in 2005, after his University of Maryland soccer team won an NCAA championship. Tuesday's visit with President Obama, to fête L.A.'s MLS Cup championship last fall, will be even better, he says.
“Not a lot of people get to do this, meet the president of the United States,” DeLaGarza, who grew up in nearby Bryans Road, Md, said in audio the Galaxy made available to ESPN Los Angeles. “I was fortunate enough my freshman year at college to meet [George W.] Bush with all the other teams that won [collegiate] national championships in the fall that year. ... This is a little bit more special than my college experience, because I was sharing with hundreds of student-athletes, but this is just L.A. Galaxy, so it's special.
“It's a great experience, something we'll never forget.”
The Galaxy arrived in Washington following its 1-1 draw Saturday afternoon at Montreal, and the players who didn't travel, along with some of the club's staff, joined the group Monday. Goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who is away from the team in Major League Soccer's substance-abuse treatment program, will join up Tuesday with a “representative from the program” before returning to his treatment facility Tuesday night.
It's enough to take their minds off this weekend's test -- Saturday's SuperClasico against Chivas USA at Home Depot Center -- at least for a few moments.
“To be honored at the White House hits you on so many levels,” said associate head coach Dave Sarachan, who was part of the D.C. United team that visited Bill Clinton in 1999 and was with the U.S. World Cup team that received a phone call from Bush in 2002. “Obviously, one is we're the champions, and having that crown from last year is still a proud moment for the L.A. Galaxy. But clearly the tradition in this country of honoring champions at the White House doesn't come around very often in a coach's career and the players' careers. We're all very humbled and honored for the opportunity.”
Defender Sean Franklin was asked what he planned to tell Barack Obama.
Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who is away from the team while in Major League Soccer's substance-abuse program, has been given permission to join his teammates for Tuesday's visit to the White House, the club said in a statement Monday.
Saunders, 31, went into MLS's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program April 27 and has missed the Galaxy's last four games. The club on Sunday confirmed that he was in the program and would be out indefinitely.
The Galaxy's statement Monday reads: “With the approval of the club, MLS and the medical professionals who are in charge of the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program, Josh will be in attendance, along with a representative from the program, for the club’s White House visit on Tuesday before returning to the program that night.”
President Obama will celebrate the Galaxy's MLS Cup title, earned last November, with an assembly on the White House's South Lawn, and the team will then join first lady Michelle Obama for a children's clinic.
The Galaxy are in Montreal for Saturday's Major League Soccer match against the Impact and will head from Quebec to Washington for Tuesday's ceremony, a club spokesman said. The Galaxy are expected to announce the visit later Thursday.
The Galaxy won their third MLS Cup title in November, beating the Houston Dynamo 1-0 in the final at Home Depot Center after capturing their second straight Supporters' Shield with a league-best 19-5-10 regular-season record. They also won MLS Cup championships in 2002 and 2005.
The Galaxy are off to a 3-5-1 start this season and are seventh in the nine-team Western Conference.
UPDATE (8:55 p.m.): The Galaxy announced the visit Thursday night. The president will honor the team at 11:05 a.m. PT on the South Lawn, and first lady Michelle Obama will be host for a “Let's Move!” soccer clinic to follow.
President Obama called Galaxy coach/general manager Bruce Arena in Indonesia on Tuesday to congratulate him and the Galaxy for their MLS Cup triumph nine days ago.
What took so long? Hard to say, since Obama identified himself as a soccer fan. Regardless, it's always nice to get a phone call from the President, whose office released this summary of the call:
“Earlier today, President Obama called Bruce Arena, general manager and head coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, to congratulate him and the team on winning the MLS Cup. The President said, as a soccer fan, he wanted to let Coach Arena know that the team inspired a lot of young soccer players, including his kids. The President congratulated Coach Arena on all that the team has done for the game of soccer and asked him to pass along his congratulations to Landon Donovan, David Beckham and the rest of the team. President Obama invited the Galaxy to the White House to celebrate their championship and wished the coach and the team continued success.”
No date, of course, for a White House visit, but if schedules mesh, L.A.'s trip to Washington to play D.C. United next season -- if they play at D.C. United under the new schedule format -- would work best.
The Galaxy is in Indonesia for the first game on its postseason tour of Asia and Australia. Obama spent part of his childhood in Jakarta, where L.A. will face Indonesia's national team on Wednesday, with a 4 a.m. PT kickoff (Fox Soccer Channel).