D.C. United is pursuing English superstar Wayne Rooney for obvious reasons: The organization needs to add pop on the field and in the marketplace.
In both cases, risk and reward will shadow this potential blockbuster move.
Rooney, 32, could become the prolific scorer United has sought for years. Or, even with a step down in competition, he could continue the decline in production that began in the 2016-17 Premier League season, his last at Manchester United. He has been playing midfield for Everton this season; D.C. would need him up front.
The rambunctious attacker carries global name recognition rivaled by few athletes in any sport. But because he is on the back side of a sterling career, United is in danger of perpetuating the perception — some of it fair, some not — that MLS is a soft-landing spot for the elite nearing retirement.
There is also Rooney’s tabloid baggage: several alleged instances of marital infidelity, heavy drinking and a conviction last year for driving under the influence.
United seems willing to take the gamble.
Club officials have declined to comment on Rooney; he is, after all, under contract with Everton for another year and won’t complete a 10-goal season until this weekend. But inside the old walls of team headquarters at RFK Stadium, there is cautious optimism — “We’re holding our breath,” one person said — that United will land the greatest scorer in the history of Manchester United and the English national team, who also stands second in Premier League annals.
It’s going to take a lot to get across the finish line.
Would United have to pay the largest transfer fee in its history? Or would Everton, looking for a clean break, let him go for free?
On top of the possible fee, is United prepared to commit several million in guaranteed salary over multiple years? Rooney is making an estimated $10 million this season, more than any MLS player. If he isn’t satisfied with D.C.’s terms, he could entertain options elsewhere in Europe or in the free-spending Chinese league.
Does his wife Coleen (1.3 million Twitter followers) want to move stateside with four young children, including a newborn?
If the sides strike a deal, Rooney would not become eligible to play until MLS’s transfer and trade window opens July 10 — just in time for Audi Field’s grand opening four days later against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Audi Field is a big piece in this puzzle. The 20,000-capacity stadium in Southwest D.C., two blocks from Nationals Park, will generate revenue streams that weren’t available at RFK Stadium, the rundown municipal facility that served as United’s home for 22 seasons.
With money flowing, United says it’s finally willing and able to spend the amounts of cash necessary to attract famous players like MLS imports David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Kaka and, most recently, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
For months, sources said, United has been eyeing Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and Italy’s Mario Balotelli. Recently, it inquired about Spanish legend Andres Iniesta, who is leaving Barcelona after 17 years.
Last summer, United reached out to Rooney’s people, but he ended up signing with Everton, his boyhood club in hometown Liverpool.
Many fans would probably argue that United should follow Atlanta’s lead and build an elite team with younger, lesser-known, high-impact players. D.C. would probably respond by saying it already has a young core and, first and foremost this summer, needs to add experience (as well as glamour).
There’s also concern that such a signing would strengthen claims that MLS is a “retirement league.” While the vast majority of recent signings have been under age 30 — Atlanta set a league record in the offseason by purchasing Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco for $15 million — the highest-profile deals involve the older set.
Signing someone with Rooney’s portfolio would certainly be a major turn by United. For years, saddled by financial losses while stuck at RFK Stadium, United mixed and matched players from around the league, sprinkled in homegrown prospects and took gambles on hit-or-miss imports.
The thrifty strategy kept the club competitive most seasons but left it without realistic hopes of contending for a trophy. For the most part, United has been treading water until the new venue became a reality.
Meanwhile, the blossoming league has passed United by, leaving the club clutching to its four MLS Cup trophies from the league’s early years. D.C. has not advanced to the final since 2004.
On the local sports scene, too, United has a lot of catching up to do. The Nationals (Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer), Wizards (John Wall and Bradley Beal) and Capitals (Alex Ovechkin) have star quality. The Redskins, no matter who is on the roster, dominate the conversation much of the year. Even the Mystics (Elena Delle Donne) and Spirit (Mallory Pugh) have elite players to market.
United’s most popular figure is not a player but the coach, Ben Olsen, who has been associated with the organization for 20 years. It has been more than a decade since the roster featured a player capable of driving ticket sales in a big way; Argentina’s Marcelo Gallardo, though, was past his prime and lasted only one season.
After spending about $250 million to build Audi Field (the city contributed another $150 million), United needs to sell tickets.
Rooney would sell tickets — at least upon his arrival.
From there, he would need to perform. And stay out of trouble.
United is banking on both.
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