WASHINGTON — Andy Williams and his family back home in Utah had been growing increasingly excited over the past few weeks at the prospect of meeting President Barack Obama during a celebratory trip to the White House with Real Salt Lake.
“[Now] I have the pictures to prove it,” Williams said with a smile.
PHOTO GALLERY: RSL's visit to White House
The veteran midfielder and his teammates who won the 2009 MLS Cup championship enjoyed their big moment with the president on Friday, joining him for a short ceremony in the East Room of the White House and then taking a tour of the residence afterward.
“It was awesome, I think a little bit more than we even expected,” coach Jason Kreis said. “We're so honored, and had expectations about what it's going to be like. To meet somebody who seemed so down to earth about everything was really, really cool.”
The team made its visit while in town for a Major League Soccer game against D.C. United on Saturday, after losing to United 2-1 in a U.S. Open Cup qualifier on Wednesday.
Kreis had about “two intense minutes” alone with the president before the ceremony, when Obama told Kreis he looked especially fit — as if he could still play.
“I told him I thought he wasn't so bad, himself,” Kreis said.
President Obama joked that Utah Senator Bob Bennett had been “too tall” to play soccer as a boy, but the president could appreciate the growing appeal of the game in the United States because of his daughters' interest in it. He applauded RSL for their unlikely championship, which came only after qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the regular-season (with a losing record) and dramatically winning the final on penalties.
“That's cutting it a little close, guys,” he joked.
“But coach Kreis said, 'We believe in each other as much as everybody disbelieved in us,'” Obama added. “For this group, the team really is the star. This is a team that shows up every day, puts in an honest effort no matter what the critics say or how steep the odds. And last season, that attitude paid off.”
Players and coaches snapped photos during a practice run before the president emerged for the ceremony, were joined by several members who have since left the club — including forward Yura Movsisyan, who departed after the title run to play for Randers FC in Denmark.
Forward Robbie Findley was not there, however, having visited the White House last week as a member of the U.S. national team that will play the World Cup in South Africa starting next week.
The team also presented Obama a No. 10 RSL jersey with his name on the back, and had its photo taken with him and the championship trophy, which defender Robbie Russell had carried to a stand before the ceremony while wearing white gloves.
“We're just honored to be here,” defender Nat Borchers said.