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D.C. United 2019 season review: Wayne Rooney

How do we feel about Rooney’s 2019? It’s still hard to say.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Following a stirring finish to 2018, everyone involved with D.C. United expected Wayne Rooney to be the star attraction on a team that was supposed to contend for a title, all while putting on a show. Yes, there were questions: was that just lightning in a bottle, or was it truly who United were going to be? Could Rooney maintain that MVP-caliber play for a full MLS season, with its attendant travel and weather complications? But still, back in late February, the idea of placing D.C. among the best five or so teams in MLS seemed like a reasonable bet.

What makes 2019 so frustrating in retrospect is that it did, briefly, look like those expectations would be fulfilled. Rooney was in dazzling form, with the numbers to back it up: 4 goals and 3 assists in March’s four fixtures, leading United to a 3W-1D-0L start to the season. He was irresistible in a 5-0 home win over Real Salt Lake, and scored a trademark goal that turned out to be a winner at Orlando:

If only the season had carried on like this, for him and for United.

It wasn’t Rooney’s fault that things started to go wrong, though. Yes, he was sent off in a 4-0 home loss to LAFC that really punctured the idea of the Black-and-Red being as good as anyone in the league, but he still got to mid-July with 11 goals and 7 assists. United, through a mix of influences ranging from Joseph Mora’s injury, Luciano Acosta’s erratic form, and inconsistent finishing from everyone other than their no. 9, were muddling along.

D.C. went 6W-7D-5L from the start of April until mid-July, scoring an unspectacular 22 goals in those 18 games. Rooney played a direct part in 11 of those goals (7g/4a), and on 5 different occasions, he either scored or assisted United’s only goal in 1-0 wins or 1-1 draws. As a whole, DCU were struggling, and whatever success they were having was down to the combined efforts of Rooney and stellar play from Bill Hamid, Steven Birnbaum, and Frederic Brillant at the back.

United’s 1-0 home win over Orlando was an ideal summary of their play during this stretch. An uneventful match entirely hinged on Rooney producing a goal out of nowhere. Somehow, this goal didn’t win goal of the year:

Mid-July is an intentionally chosen point to break this season up, because Rooney was “given a game off” by the club after a 4-1 demolition of a hapless FC Cincinnati. Ben Olsen had played Rooney for the full 90 in 13 of the preceding 16 games, and in two of the games that he hadn’t gone 90, he played over 83 minutes. Facing an awkward Thursday-Sunday set of games, both on the road and both on turf, the idea made some sense. Rooney was going to go on a quick holiday back to England, see family, rest up, and all that jazz.

Except, that wasn’t really the main purpose of the trip. Rooney was in England resting and reinvigorating himself, sure, but he was also having talks with Derby County about a move back to English soccer. With his family apparently pining for a return home, and the opportunity to become a player-coach under former Dutch international Phillip Cocu available, Rooney came back and had a lengthy chat with United’s brain trust in Orlando, where he played in the All-Star Game. The dominoes had already fallen.

The timing of the announcement couldn’t have been worse, though that had less to do with Rooney being indelicate — if anything, his handling of that sort of thing is a model for other world superstars to follow — and more to do with the worst result of United’s season. Two days before Rooney’s early departure was revealed, the Black-and-Red were ripped to shreds at home by the Philadelphia Union. United had one win in their previous seven games at that point, making matters worse.

Doubts began to creep in about Rooney’s commitment, though the evidence being cited was all circumstantial. Rooney missed a 2-1 win over the Galaxy with a respiratory ailment, which raised some red flags for the conspiratorially inclined. Ten days later, he was sent off early in a 2-1 loss to the Red Bulls, which resulted in a two-game suspension. He missed the season finale due to yellow card accumulation, and in the end made only 7 appearances in United’s final 12 games (and only 6 of those lasted more than 24 minutes).

The case people made was that Rooney had effectively already set his mind towards his future with Derby County. That wasn’t really reflected in Rooney’s actual engagement in games or at training, and his teammates and coach refuted the idea whenever it came up. However, a loss of form can’t really be argued. Rooney scored no goals and had a solitary assist in those final 12 games, just as Ben Olsen had switched his scheme up to a very conservative approach that would in theory require the club’s most talented player to provide the game-breaking moments.

If the idea was to have Rooney shoulder the attacking burden as he had during the late spring and early summer, things didn’t go to plan. Other, less heralded players began coming up with the goods: Lucas Rodriguez scored 3 of United’s last 12 goals on the year, with Paul Arriola chipping in 2 of his own. Frederic Brillant had 2 goals and 2 assists in that same timespan, which is an indicator that even as Rooney’s goals and assists dipped badly, his set piece service was still critical.

Rooney’s ability to function as a playmaker while being deployed a lone striker did allow Olsen to choose the defensively-sound attacking midfield trio we saw at the end of the season, and his absence was extraordinarily clear during what has become an infamous 0-0 home draw against 9-man FC Cincinnati. He may not have been in the form that he started the year with, but like it or not, United’s attack still leaned heavily on Wazza as its creative hub.

Ultimately, though, United’s 2019 writ large follows a similar arc to Rooney’s season. It feels worse than it actually was (United had 51 points, Rooney was among the best attackers in MLS, etc) because the expectations were so high, and the ending was so...bland. It would have been easier in a way to sort through some kind of disastrous ending, but in this case it feels like something special just fizzled out for hard-to-define reasons.

An example: Rooney’s “LuchoRoo” partnership with Acosta never really got going, and probably in large part due to the sudden intervention of a French club run by petro-dollars. What can you do in that situation? It’s frustrating, but there’s also an element of helplessness. We see teams of great promise stumble due to injuries, or historically bad luck, but what do you do when a crucial part of a player’s success is undone by one of the most bizarre transfer sagas in MLS history?

Normally there’s a decision for you fine folks to make at the end of these reviews, but the drama is already played out here. Rooney signed his contract with Derby, and barring some extraordinary turn of events (a desire for half-smokes, perhaps?), he’s not going to abandon the East Midlands and come back to the District. Whatever jolt Rooney was supposed to provide United has already happened, and the club has to continue trying to climb back up towards the top of MLS on and off the field without him.

So let’s change the terms a bit: Would you want Rooney back if his future were undecided? Keep in mind, Dave Kasper signed Ola Kamara to lead the line next year, and with Acosta leaving this winter, Rooney’s role would probably be somewhat different. With those factors in mind, and remembering that spending on his salary necessarily hamstrings moves for other players, consider the prospect of whether you think United would truly be better off if he had opted to stick around for 2020.


If you could have him back, would you want Wayne Rooney back for the 2020 season?

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