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D.C. United 2018 season review: Wayne Rooney

The England legend set MLS and the District alight after signing mid-season

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We could start at the end and just say that Wayne Rooney’s debut season with D.C. United was a spectacular success. Despite playing just half a season for a team that only finished mid-table, Rooney was so good that he ended up making the MLS MVP ballot. His arrival marked a major boost in United’s profile nationally, internationally, and (perhaps most importantly) locally. He handled the potential locker room pitfalls that tripped up David Beckham — the money, the attention, the captaincy, the simple act of fitting in with an existing group — thoughtfully and gracefully.

That leaves out a lot, though, so let’s go back to the beginning. It feels like it was sometime last year, but it hasn’t even been six full months since Rooney addressed the media at the Newseum. United was at the very bottom of the MLS standings, though construction on Audi Field meant that they had played just 13 games (a total everyone else in the league passed sometime between mid-May and the first week of June). The team had improved after a dismal 2017, but a 2W-4D-7L record will always feel bad regardless of context (particularly coming on the heels of that aforementioned debacle of a season).

At that moment, 17 points out of the playoffs, everyone involved with United needed something big. Fans needed a reason to hope. Ownership needed a reason for people to come to the new stadium on Buzzard Point. The players needed a spark, and Ben Olsen may well have been staring at the end of his time as the club’s head coach. Wayne Rooney couldn’t just be a good signing; he had to be a bargain at a transfer fee and salary that was roughly an order of magnitude higher than anything the Black-and-Red had ever offered anyone.

There were reasons to be pessimistic. At 32, Rooney had spent half his life playing in the physically and mentally grueling Premier League. Much of his downtime during those years was spent playing for England, which is like leaving the frying pan to vacation in the fire. Rooney arrived with over 600 games of elite soccer in his legs, and 16 years of dealing with the pressures and demands that fall on any English star. That’s a lot for someone to endure, and it would be easy to understand if he had come to MLS looking for a leisurely romp before retirement, or if he came to work but simply had nothing left to give.

There were other questions out there as well. Rooney’s final few months at Everton had seen him shunted into a midfield role, and the broad reaction from fans there when his departure was confirmed could be summed up as “yeah, that makes sense.” Progress isn’t linear in MLS, but the league’s vanguard were moving away from world superstars in their 30s, favoring explosive young players on the cusp of greatness. And was Rooney the right signing to ignite the passions of a dwindling fanbase whose heroes of the past largely hailed from South and Central America?

On paper, Rooney’s debut probably looked good enough to anyone who didn’t watch it. He entered the game with United holding a 1-0 lead, and they made it 2-0 shortly thereafter. Rooney notched an assist on the third, and United marked Audi Field’s opening with a win over a team they should have been able to beat. Good enough, but maybe nothing special.

The vibe in the building was very different. Rooney made the game look so easy, almost like any random fan could saunter down to field level, borrow a kit and some shoes, and put on a show. Off the ball, his movement flummoxed Vancouver’s defense, who always seemed two steps behind. United’s promising attacking midfield suddenly seemed unlocked, and every attack brimmed with the potential for a goal. Rooney, more than anything else, looked the part of a genuine world-class player. To sum it up, he convinced.

Still, after 5 appearances, he had just one goal to go with the assist, and some casual observers started to circle back to their initial wariness about the signing. The question seemed to be “Is that all he’s got?” There weren’t any questions about whether United had become a better team with Rooney; the issue was whether he was capable of being a true catalyst for a club that needed one.

And then, this happened:

We’ll stop short of digging into the astounding drama of easily the wildest game in MLS this year (sorry second leg of Seattle vs. Portland, you didn’t top this), and just note that this was the night that United diehards were completely won over. Thanks to a national broadcast, MLS fans of all stripes got to witness the “Buzzard Beater,” and any question about Rooney’s ability to impact games vanished in an instant.

The 3-2 win over Orlando City galvanized United in a way that did them far more good than, say, a straightforward 2-0 win would have. They went on to beat both eventual MLS Cup finalists by a combined scoreline of 7-2. They destroyed the Montreal Impact 5-0 in a game both teams had to have. The team that had was 17 points out of a playoff berth the day he walked through the door clinched a playoff spot with a game to spare. And Rooney was at the center of all of it, racking up 12 goals and 7 assists in just 20 appearances.

On the field, the signing was unquestionably meeting expectations. Rooney ended up in the Best XI, was an MVP contender, unlocked Luciano Acosta’s undoubted potential, and keyed an attack that was as dangerous and as fun to watch as any in the league. This is what MLS teams are paying for when they put up $5 million or so a year in salary, and when they pay a similarly high transfer fee. He was earning all of it, and putting on a show in the process.

Off the field, Rooney was meeting the same standard. Rather than walking in like he owned the joint, Rooney acclimated quietly. Offered the chance to take Acosta’s #10 shirt, he declined, and rather than take the captain’s armband over immediately, he insisted that he be allowed to win his new squad over first. He even joined the team’s fantasy football league despite knowing little about the NFL, and paid for it.

More important than all of that is the culture shift that came when he arrived. Olsen noted more than once that there are some things you can’t replicate as a coach, and one of them is having a player with Rooney’s experience and pedigree in your locker room. United went from a promising but inconsistent bunch to a focused, tight-knit team that could be relied upon to produce a winning effort night after night.

There wasn’t a storybook ending in store for Rooney, or for United. The season came to an end with Columbus finding a way to partially disrupt the link he and Acosta had in the knockout round, and Rooney’s penalty kick was saved in the tiebreaker. That said, the talk of the Crew “solving” Rooney was a bit much. Looking back, Rooney still had 6 key passes in that game (more than anyone on either team), even as the visitors did an unfortunately marvelous job tracking runners whenever United got their captain the ball.

There are questions to ask of every player, of course. Rooney will turn 34 this year, and United fans can’t help but recall how suddenly age came calling for past stars like Dwayne De Rosario and Marco Etcheverry. Rooney proved skeptics (like myself, I certainly have to admit) wrong with his durability over a packed slate of games this year. Can he do it again, for a full season? And will he be able to bring his best stuff on the road, which might involve a 4+ hour flight, or a game on turf, or both?

Still, this is the easiest question of the entire offseason. You know you want to keep Wayne Rooney around for the 2019 season, and I know you want to. Have at it:


Do you want Wayne Rooney back for the 2019 season?

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