It wasn’t quite the exit Wayne Rooney had planned. After a shade under 16 months in Major League Soccer his time in America was not ending with a memorable goal or a trophy, but via a substitution at half-time in extra-time -- his side all but assured of crashing out of the playoffs to Toronto FC.
By Rooney’s definition, he has not achieved what he set out to do in MLS. “I’m here to compete. I’m here to win,” he said after joining the club in June last year.
At first, he stayed true to that promise. The team Rooney joined was a struggling one, and it was often a piece of inspiration from Rooney that turned games around for United in those first few months.
Last season, his form (along with a backlog of home games) helped D.C. United mount an unlikely push towards the playoff spots. This season, it saw the team finish fifth in the Eastern Conference with Rooney leading the team in both goals and assists (he managed one fewer goal in 8 more games in 2019).
His partnership with Luciano Acosta (nicknamed LuchoRoo), was another high point, especially during his first season. 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.
Even with a small dip in form, fans were excited by Rooney’s presence. He was the perfect star-name to launch Audi Field, and his game-winning assist against Orlando City last season will go down in club folklore forever, as it perfectly encapsulated Rooney’s game.
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. It would be difficult to top that, but in trying to win MLS Cup, the club at least had a clear ambition. D.C. United last lifted the trophy in 2004, and it would have been an excellent way for the veteran to sign off his time in MLS, with the drive to do that only intensifying after it was confirmed he would be returning to England ahead of schedule.
“I remain fully focused on giving my all for the team for the rest of this season and repaying the support shown by the Black-and-Red faithful by hopefully delivering an MLS Cup to Audi Field,” Rooney said in a statement released by D.C. United. “My time in Major League Soccer is something I will always be proud of.”
One might argue the situation Rooney is walking into at Derby County is a lot more uncertain than the one he is leaving behind. The former Manchester United striker is set to join up with Derby in early December and will report for a mini pre-season with Phillip Cocu’s side. At present, the Rams are eight points off league leaders West Bromwich Albion, and the hope will be that Rooney can add some attacking quality for a promotion push come January.
Whether hope matches expectation is another question entirely. During Rooney’s second spell at Everton, he struggled to establish himself in one position. He played six different roles during his second spell at Everton as the Toffees struggled to accommodate a player that while technically still very good was diminished physically.
For D.C. United Rooney operated as a centre-forward in the mould of a false 9, dropping deeper, and looking to connect with teammates. This season, Cocu has opted for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, with target man Chris Martin getting the nod upfront of late. His preference for a possession-based system may suit a player of Rooney’s style, although some fans have criticised the manager for what they perceive to be a stubbornness towards his approach, and in some cases no discernible approach at all.
All of that will matter little to fans of D.C. United. Few will contest that Rooney improved the club during his brief spell in MLS, but as he heads home to England, there is a space to be filled. D.C. United were on the up with Rooney, and it falls on those in charge to maintain that trajectory.