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Ben Olsen: “It’s time to take this club to the next level”

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With Rooney arriving and Audi Field set to be christened next week, United’s manager knows the pressure is on for the Black-and-Red

D.C. United, forced into an awkward schedule while awaiting the opening of Audi Field, has had an unusual couple of days. While Wayne Rooney was announced as United’s newest designated player, and then did a media tour around the city, the rest of the team was traversing the country, playing games against the New England Revolution and LA Galaxy. Which ended up in United drawing attention wherever they went, a bit unusual for a team that’s currently bottom of the MLS table.

But Wednesday’s 2-2 tie against the Galaxy brought an end to United’s tour, which saw them travel for 12 of their first 14 games this season. And when they finally got back to the training field on Friday, a new teammate in Rooney was waiting for them.

“It’s been a long four months,” United Head Coach Ben Olsen told the gathered media after the open practice.

That all changes now though, with 15 of the final 20 games home. The team only has to leave the Eastern time zone once more this year, when they travel to Chicago for the final game of the season. And to help open their new stadium, United have brought in one of England’s most decorated scorers. Rooney is the all-time leading scorer for the English men’s team, and no one has ever netted more goals than him for Manchester United.

It’s the type of player that has occasionally graced MLS, but the likes of which have never really played in the Black-and-Red.

“First and foremost, we got him to be a soccer player, and to elevate us on the field,” added Olsen, after getting to see Rooney on the practice field for the first time. “He’s an elite soccer player, and checks all the boxes.”

The added bonus of the timing is that Rooney will help United usher in a new era at Audi Field. The team struggled for years to try to find an agreement with Washington, D.C. to move into a building of their own. Owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien came in and helped facilitated the process, but also turned the faucet almost all the way off in terms of money to bring in players.

And so while other clubs in MLS have taken off, both on and off the field, United has been stuck, waiting for a stadium solution, a place to call their own. Now that’s days from happening, adding Rooney to the mix gives United a chance to raise their profile in D.C., and even within the league.

“Doubling down with a player with Wayne’s stature, on top of the stadium is fun,” said Olsen. “It’s something we need to enjoy and embrace.”

With everything coming together at once, there will be added pressure for United to begin to succeed on the field, where they have had mixed results since their heyday, back in the infancy of MLS.

“It’s time to take this club to the next level,” Olsen said, of the changes the club is undergoing. “And with the stadium, Wayne, a good young team that I think is fun to watch right now, its a huge step for us.”

With just over a week left until the Audi Field debut on July 14th against the Vancouver Whitecaps, there are two important questions for Olsen and his coaching staff to answer. One is where Rooney’s fitness is at, as the striker has not played a game since Everton beat Huddersfield on April 28th.

“You assess it with data,” said Olsen, about the information gathered about the players during training, about how he will determine if Rooney can start or not against the ‘Caps.

“It’s science, and we know exactly where his fitness will be over the next couple of days.”

The second question, and likely the more difficult one to answer is where exactly Rooney will be deployed by Olsen. Rooney made his name in England as a striker, but in recent years, has dropped further back into midfield. Both player and coach have referenced already knowing what the solution will be.

It’s likely that he’ll play as a forward, but given the season Darren Mattocks is having, in which he has already set a career high for goals with 8 in 14 games, their are multiple solutions to the positional question regarding Rooney.

“There is a way for them to fit together. There is also a way for them not to fit together,” Olsen said in answering whether or not Rooney and Mattocks can play together.

But Olsen added one more line to his answer, which might clear up any lingering doubts.

“I want him to put up numbers, I want him to score goals. And that’s what he’s done for his entire career, even when he was withdrawn,” Olsen said of Rooney. “He’s looking forward to getting back closer to goal.