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 first: “All the best at the WhiteHouse 2morrow lads @LAGalaxy,me and @FrankieHejduk2 werent invited after we gave everything to win the cup but hey!”
And then: “A lot of people asking why me and @FrankieHejduk2 didn't get invited, we wish we could answer that,love the fans but its so so wrong!!!”
Crew television analyst (and former midfielder) Duncan Oughton got into it, too: “Can't believe @FrankieHejduk2 & @chrisbirchall7 not invited to the White House as key parts of the 2011 Champs. Glad we have them #Crew96”
Birchall left the Galaxy in the offseason to pursue opportunities at home in England, and there wasn't a spot for him when he told Arena in mid-January he'd like to return. Hejduk's option wasn't renewed, and he retired last month to take the position with Columbus.
Other members of the championship team not invited to participate were goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, defenders Sean Alvarado, Gregg Berhalter, Dustin McCarty, Dasan Robinson and Ryan Thomas, midfielder Paolo Cardozo and forward Miguel Lopez. Berhalter is coaching in Sweden, Ricketts is with the Montreal Impact, Cardozo was traded last month to Chivas USA, and Lopez is playing in Argentina. Among former players, only retired Jovan Kirovski, now an assistant coach, was present.
The Galaxy did not return inquiries asking why former players weren't included.
Obama got his biggest laughs while addressing Beckham.
“We also have a young up-and-comer on the team, a guy named David Beckham,” the president said. “I have to say I gave David a hard time -- I said half his teammates could be his kids. We're getting old, David. Although you're holding up better than me.
“Last year, at the age of 36, David had his best year in MLS, leading the team with 15 assists. He did it despite fracturing his spine halfway through the season, injuring his hamstring the week before the championship game. He is tough. In fact, it is a rare man who can be that tough on the field and also have his own line of underwear. David Beckham is that man.”
“It was funny,” Beckham admitted. “Embarrassing, but funny. I'll have to send him some long johns and some of the different pieces [from my underwear collection]. ... He made a few comments, actually, about me today: the underwear, being a dad to some of the kids, and also my facial hair. Normally I wouldn't have [the hair], but I'm on a bet with one of my friends. It's a [L.A.] Kings playoff beard.”
Obama also singled out two local boys -- former University of Maryland stars Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza -- and thanked the team “as a soccer dad” for having “inspired a lot of kids,” some of whom were on hand for a soccer clinic on the South Lawn with first lady Michelle Obama.
The storm threat put an end to that, so six Galaxy players (Donovan, Beckham, DeLaGarza, defenders Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin, and midfielder Mike Magee) sat down with the kids for a Q&A session. It wrapped with an autograph session after Donovan passed his championship ring around the room for all the kids to see and hold.