When Wayne Rooney touched down in Major League Soccer he made his intentions clear — he wanted to leave a legacy and win trophies.
The chances of him reaching that goal have narrowed considerably after the former Manchester United striker confirmed he will return to England in January to join Derby County.
“When [Rooney] came back he said he had a strong desire to return home, and not just to the U.K., but to his house where he lives, and didn’t know if he was going to be able to continue after this season, or for the full [length] of his contract,” DCU co-owner and CEO Jason Levien told ESPN.
If news of Rooney’s arrival in MLS last summer came as a surprise, his sudden departure invoked a similar sense of shock.
The 33-year-old was D.C. United’s marquee signing in June last year. He was the perfect blend of talent and star power required to launch the club’s new stadium, Audi Field. It is undeniable that Rooney has delivered on both counts.
At present, he has 23 goals and 14 assists in 43 games. Those stats do not cover his memorable moments of brilliance, however, such as his contribution against Orlando City last season. That night Rooney produced a recovery run, tackle and 60-yard stoppage-time assist to win the game and send social media into meltdown.
Last season, his form (along with a backlog of home games) helped D.C. United mount an unlikely push towards the playoff spots. This year, it has the team sitting third in the Eastern Conference.
His partnership with Luciano Acosta (nicknamed LuchoRoo), has been another highlight. There remains a chance that Acosta could join Rooney in leaving the club this year with his contract set to expire in December. Furthermore, there are question marks about the future of goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defender Leandro Jara, and midfielder Lucas Rodriguez, all of whom are on loan.
Given there is potential for 2020 to be a year of rebuilding there is added pressure for the team to achieve something this year, with the bare minimum for next year being to replace Rooney.
DCU were quick to conduct some business in the wake of Rooney’s announcement with the signing of MLS veteran midfielder Felipe Martins as well as striker Ola Kamara from Shenzhen in China. Kamara has experience of MLS after stints with the Columbus Crew SC and LA Galaxy and should provide the team with goals.
Replacing Rooney’s star power may be the more significant obstacle, however. Big names have trickled out of the rumour mill and include Mesut Ozil, Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge. DCU co-owner and CEO Jason Levein provided some reassurance to supporters on the club’s intended next steps.
“We’ve grown our fan base, we’ve grown the visibility of our club in a big way the last two seasons,” he said. “We don’t plan to rest on our laurels or stop there. We want to take it to a whole new level.”
Rooney missed the team’s last game against the LA Galaxy through illness, but that didn’t stop United from winning. If DCU were looking for inspiration in their search for a new Designated Player, they potentially saw it in their opponents.
Cristian Pavon, signed on loan from Boca Juniors, is not technically a Designated Player, but he is of that calibre. South America --and specifically Argentina-- has long been a source for top-MLS talent, with Argentines taking up more of the league’s DP spots than any other nation. The chance to add one (or even two) exciting young South Americans could be a bold new direction for United to go in.
Of course, it would be naive to just throw money at the issue. Rooney’s willingness to see out the season will provide DCU with much-needed time to diligently source a replacement, one that not only produces goals but also excitement.
As for Rooney, his target is clear.
“So, you want to come here, and when I finish playing, see pictures up in the locker room and in the stadium,” he told SI.com one year ago. “I want to be in those pictures and then when young guys come through and we say, ‘He was a captain who led us to success and led us to trophies.’”
The Supporters’ Shield seems an overly-ambitious goal this season given LAFC’s dominance, but in MLS Cup there is potential for Rooney to deliver on his wish. David Beckham’s last act in MLS was to win MLS Cup. If Rooney can end his time in the league on a similar high, it will not only deliver on his promise but also soften the pain for fans of United.