WASHINGTON — Very few tonics can quell the pain from a 4-1 defeat, but the Colorado Rapids found an effective — though rare — one on Monday: an audience with the President of the United States.
The visit to the White House to celebrate the 2010 MLS Cup championship followed closely on the heels of a loss in Columbus that probably ranks as their worst result of the year. Yet the occasion lifted the team’s spirits in dramatic fashion, providing reminders of last year’s collective triumph as well as new memories of a presidential encounter that will last a lifetime.
“It does, totally,” said Colorado captain Pablo Mastroeni, when asked if the White House experience wiped away Sunday’s frustrations. “That’s one game, and we have a game coming up in five days. The moment we got on the plane this morning, it was all out of our memory.
“The game that happened last night, I’ll never remember — 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 it with my kids and my kids’ kids. It’s a moment that I’ll forever cherish.”
Dressed in dapper gray suits and accompanied by team owner Stan Kroenke, the Rapids initially looked unsure of themselves as they waited for President Obama in the opulent surroundings of the White House’s East Room.
"After last night, a few of them were subdued to begin with,” head coach Gary Smith admitted afterwards. “The fact that I probably wasn’t in the best mood didn’t help at all with the atmosphere in the group.”
But that quickly changed when the nation’s chief executive strode into the room and delivered a speech peppered with lighthearted quips and, to the surprise of the players, plenty of detailed information about the team.
“You don’t know what to expect,” said Mastroeni, who had a briefer White House visit several years ago as part of the United States' 2002 World Cup team. “It’s such a formal place and you see it all on TV, so being there you’re a bit uncomfortable. You actually don’t know how to act.
“[But] at the end of the day the president comes in and acts like himself and allows us to all be calm. Once he starts speaking and engages everybody, it feels like you’re in his living room and you’re just hanging out with him alone. So he does a really great job of making you feel comfortable being in this place.”
Obama called attention to Mastroeni’s 13-year wait for a championship, though he demurred from attempting to pronounce his last name, instead referring to “Pablo, the captain,” a decision that Mastroeni readily endorsed afterwards, quipping that, “It was in his best interest not to.”
Obama referred to several other members of the team by name and brought out more laughs with a little-known story about Kosuke Kimura, Colorado’s Japanese right back.
“This team has obviously overcome quite a few cultural differences — this is like a mini United Nations right here,” noted the President. “You’ve got players from Argentina, England, France, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Scotland and Senegal.
“In fact, I heard that the night before the championship, Kosuke Kimura, I understand that he made a very inspiring speech to the team, but it was in Japanese, so nobody really understood what he was saying. But it was really inspirational.”
Obama also showed his knowledge of the game by jokingly comparing himself to Lionel Messi when the Rapids presented him with a replica jersey bearing the same No. 10 worn by the Argentina and FC Barcelona superstar.
“He’s a great orator and he’s always well prepared,” said forward Conor Casey of Obama’s remarks, which included praise for him and his usual strike partner, Omar Cummings. “To have your name dropped by the president is pretty sweet. So it’s exciting for me, for sure.”
Leading a soccer clinic for the children of military families — many of whom have lost a parent due to combat casualties — also provided valuable perspective for the Rapids.
“Obviously they haven’t had it too easy lately, having one of their parents pass,” said Casey, “so for them to be able to come out here and play a little of the game they love on the White House lawn with us, you could tell they were definitely excited and motivated to run around and have fun, and for us it’s cool to be able to share the day with them.”