When Wayne Rooney arrived in Major League Soccer he did so with a clear intention. “I’m here to compete. I’m here to win,” he said.
The team he was joining, D.C. United, was not in a winning position. They were bottom of the Eastern Conference. Their history as four-time MLS Cup winners was a distant memory (they last lifted the trophy in 2004 after winning three of the first four) and they needed a spark.
The same was true of Rooney. The 33-year-old had just spent a frustrating second spell at boyhood club, Everton. Despite recording ten goals in 31 league games, Everton informed him he could move on at the end of the season.
Critics had labeled Everton’s decision to re-sign Rooney as one ruled by the heart and not the head, and as one blogger put it, ‘his Everton career can be summed up in one sentence, left too soon, returned too late.’
Rooney officially joined D.C. United in late-June. He signed a three-and-a-half year deal, which at 32-years-old felt risky, and was not met with universal approval, both by fans and pundits alike.
Any uncertainty, however, was quickly replaced with appreciation when Rooney took to the field. His arrival coincided with the opening of the club’s new stadium — Audi Field — which was over a decade in the making.
The first MLS game at stadium saw Rooney emerge as a late substitute and record an assist in a 3-1 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
That cameo was a secure platform to build on. Three matches into his MLS career he was named club captain, and he scored his first goal in the next game against the Colorado Rapids.
“Wayne has the respect of the guys, not only from his past but also the way he has been the last few weeks being here,” head coach Ben Olsen said.
He produced a show-stopping moment weeks later when the team played Orlando City, and it encapsulated everything we have come to love about Rooney.
Deep into injury time, with D.C. United chasing a victory, they sent goalkeeper David Ousted up for a corner.
Orlando cleared the ball and Will Johnson raced towards an empty net. Rooney not only chased back to midfield and won the ball with an emphatic slide tackle, but he then got up, dribbled forward and fired a pass 40 yards onto the head of Luciano Acosta for a stoppage-time winner.
A video clip of the moment flew across social media and even made ESPN’s Sports Center. His influence did not stop there. Rooney joined the team in late June, and between that point and the end of the regular season, only the New York Red Bulls (the eventual winners of the Supporters’ Shield) won more points than D.C. United.
The team stormed into the playoff spots, and while there were scheduling factors at play (the team had a backlog of home fixtures due to their new stadium opening mid-season), it was undeniable that Rooney had played a significant role.
Where Everton played Rooney in several different positions D.C. United has a clear and consistent role for him. He is the team’s focal point in the final third, and he has been surrounded by runners to make space for him to influence the game.
One of those foils is Luciano Acosta. The Argentine joined United from Boca Juniors, and the two combined to produce a staggering 46 goals and assists between them last season.
Away from the field, Rooney has been a leader in the dressing room. He demands no special treatment and makes the most of the anonymity he enjoys in his day-to-day life.
Unsurprisingly, he has carried his form from 2018 into 2019. The standard of play may not be at the same level as the Premier League, but he has admitted he has been pleasantly surprised by the quality found in MLS.
Two weeks ago he notched his first MLS hat-trick during the demolition of Real Salt Lake. He has four goals and two assists in four league games already this season, and he is seen as an early contender for the league’s MVP award.
Just as important as the goals and assists is the smile that has returned to Rooney’s face.
In MLS, Rooney is not judged against what he was or what he isn’t; he is instead appreciated for what he can still offer. That has allowed him a freedom that sits well on his shoulders. MLS has given Rooney a new lease of life, and the hope now is that his joy will serve as the catalyst for success with D.C. United.