In searing heat late on Tuesday morning, D.C. United finished up practice by playing a little tournament, in teams of five. One team consisted of Luciano Acosta, Frederic Brillant, Junior Moreno, a visiting player, and United’s newest signing, Wayne Rooney. Over the course of a couple of games, that team shined above all others, winning the friendly tournament among their teammates.
None too shocking for his Ben Olsen, Rooney’s new head coach with the Black-and-Red.
“It’s no surprise that his team won the small tournament we did today. He’s used to winning,” Olsen told reporters after Tuesday’s open practice.
With just four days until the team plays their first game at Audi Field, United are trying their best to integrate Rooney into the team. After arriving in the District almost two weeks ago, Rooney has had little time to get to know his new teammates. The rest of the team was away on trips to New England and Los Angeles, and it wasn’t until last Friday that the English striker was finally able to practice with the full squad for the first time.
When Rooney swapped Everton for Manchester United, and vice versa, there was still some familiarity in meeting new teammates, players that he had played against in England. In coming over here, he’s now with a completely new set of players, something that has made his experience in moving clubs a bit different.
“Of course it’s different coming to a new team, a new country, a new set of players who I have never met before,” Rooney said after Tuesday’s open practice. “It’s different, but something we all have to get on with, and become friends both on and off the pitch.”
Still, according to Olsen, in the limited time that Rooney has been with the team there have been obvious signs of the quality that the Designated Player is bringing to the team, with his wealth of experience from having played almost 800 professional games since his debut with Everton as a teenager.
“His combination play, goals, and his presence is automatically going to raise the level of some of the other players,” said Olsen.
“He’s a good fit for us, because we have a young squad, [and] because of the season we’ve had so far,” said Olsen. “There’s been a lot of quality, a lot of good things, but putting it all together, and maximizing the points we should have, that’s been a knock on us. I think he brings that. That’s details, and discipline that a guy like him can bring.”
For Rooney’s part, he has been surprised by the level of competition he has experienced so far just in training. The former England captain spoke to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard before coming stateside, but admitted that everyone experiences the league differently, which shapes their views. As such, his first impressions of what he thinks the league has to offer is different than what the perception of MLS is back in Great Britain.
“I think the right thing for me to do is to show the league the respect it deserves. I think the quality is a lot better than what I thought.” said Rooney. “ The quality is a lot higher than I think what people think back home in England.”
United, currently mired in last place in the league standings with just 11 points from their first 14 games, have shifted their attention to the biggest day on the calendar in quite some time. This weekend, after decades of uncertainty, United will open Audi Field, their own stadium in the District.
Yesterday, there was a ribbon cutting ceremony as the team celebrated the completion of the $400m stadium. There was plenty of excitement to go around, and add on top of that Rooney’s likely debut, and there is more hype around this team than any time this decade.
“It will be a great moment, to make my debut in MLS, for D.C. Any debut you make is a big moment,” said Rooney. “Before the game, I’ll think about [making my debut], but once kickoff comes, and I come out, the focus will be on the game.”
And managing the excitement amongst the whole team, will be one of the main tasks for United this weekend. Taking away all the hoopla that surrounds the game, there is still three points on the offer against the Vancouver Whitecaps that United have to take in order to get their second half of the season on the right course.
But Olsen believes that his team is capable of separating the anticipation from the task at hand.
“It’s a fine balance of the celebration of it all, but also understanding that we’ve got to get some points. And Vancouver is in our way,” said United’s longest-serving manager.
“So the guys have a good understanding of using that energy and excitement of all this, but not get carried away, and still have the discipline that we need to go about getting the three points,” added Olsen. “That balance is always tough for teams that have a big game, with a lot of hype around it. I think we’re mature enough to deal with it.”