It’s easy to look at the numbers and decide that Wayne Rooney hasn’t made much of an impact in MLS. Though his first five games, Rooney has just one goal. His team, D.C. United, still sits at the bottom of Eastern Conference, on pace to miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
Then again, stats rarely tell the whole story. And to hear those closest to him tell it, Rooney – who arrived in the U.S. capital in June following a legendary career in his native England – is quietly leaving his mark on the field and inside the locker room.
“He’s everything we thought he would be: Highly competitive, a winner, selfless, a great training player, great teammate with the older guys and a good leader who helps guide the young guys,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen told Yahoo Sports before Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Montreal. “And guess what? He also resonates with the fans.”
And Rooney is ready for all of it.
“Physically I feel fine,” Rooney told reporters after the game, adding that he’s still not quite in midseason shape. “Obviously I’m not in mid-20s, but I’m still fairly young and I’ve got a lot to give.”
There’s no doubt about that. As the all-time top scorer for the English national team and Manchester United, Rooney is a global icon. He was recruited, in part, so that his name could adorn the marquee outside of Audi Field, the club’s sparkling new stadium. He is DCU’s undisputed headliner, the one they’ve been lacking for more than a decade. Given that status, some might have expected Rooney to show up with an ego to match his $13 million, two-and-a-half-year contract.
“I think there’s always that possibility when a big-name superstar comes into the league,” says United midfielder Paul Arriola. “But he’s been a great guy and a leader on and off the field. He brings another type of energy to the team. He wants to fit in. He talks to us and we listen to him. The trust and respect is there. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Olsen and his staff had a good idea of what they were getting. They knew Rooney could help on the field and at the gate. But given the eight-figure investment, they also needed a model citizen. So they did their due diligence, quizzing some of Rooney’s former coaches and teammates about their experiences working with the 32-year-old striker. After hearing only good things, the deal was completed. Rooney’s attitude has been even better than advertised.
“He’s a little bit more humble and down to earth than I thought he would be,” admits Olsen, who named Rooney United’s captain just two weeks after his July 14 debut. “That’s the one thing that strikes me, how easygoing he is, how affable.”
It’s made for a smooth integration for Rooney, who will be joined in D.C. by his wife and three children in the coming weeks, and his new colleagues.
“I definitely have those moments a lot, like, oh my god Wayne Rooney’s actually on my team,” 18-year-old midfielder Chris Durkin said. “But from the very beginning, he seemed very approachable. He’s a very relaxed guy.”
It’s hard to reconcile this portrait of Rooney with the player we see on Saturdays. The Liverpool native is famously combative when the lights come on, as intense between the lines as they come. Those qualities have also been on display since his arrival.
Any doubts about Rooney’s commitment were erased when he made his first start for DCU on a turf pitch in Atlanta. Similarly big names such as Didier Drogba and Thierry Henry bristled at playing on artificial surfaces during their years in MLS; to hear Olsen tell it, the thought of sitting out or curtailing his playing time because of the turf never once crossed Rooney’s mind.
Saturday’s match marked Rooney’s third start and second consecutive 90-minute appearance. “Even at the end of the game he’s always engaged, constantly moving and putting himself in good spots defensively and offensively,” Olsen said. “Those are difficult minutes.”
He came close to scoring on a first-half free kick against Montreal in what was perhaps his most complete performance for D.C. yet – not bad for a guy playing with a broken nose.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 5, 2018
More goals figure to come eventually. But even when he’s not finishing plays or setting them up, Rooney’s mere presence has made D.C. a more unpredictable side.
“A lot of teams’ game plan is to stop Wayne,” Arriola says. “He will kind of suck the defenders in, and it opens up more space for our other attacking players.”
The trick is to turn that extra space into chances, chances into goals, goals into wins. United has games in hand on every team in the East, including three on fifth-place New England. Olsen believes they can qualify for the postseason if they shore up defensively and get hot over their final 15 contests, 13 of which will be played at home. So far, DCU has won twice, lost twice and drawn once with Rooney in the lineup.
“Me and my teammates are getting to know each other better,” Rooney said. “I feel like we’re progressing.”
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