Before reliving Wayne Rooney’s monumental act from D.C. United’s wondrous victory late Sunday — a feat that sent shared video ricocheting around Europe when the workweek dawned a few hours later — it’s important to step back five days to a steamy afternoon in a rooftop bar on Audi Field’s north end.
The space is empty, except for Rooney, his wife and eldest of four sons dressed in United gear, two team staffers and a couple of reporters. The family is about to go house-hunting, but first, the English superstar agrees to discuss his first five weeks in Washington.
He answers questions about becoming the newly minted captain and adjusting to a new club, new league and new routine. (For the first time in his storied soccer career, for instance, team flights are commercial and hotel quarters come with a roommate.)
The conversation then pivots to an issue that confronts every famous player that has landed in blossoming MLS after their prime years: Are you taking this seriously or just here to collect a fat paycheck and fade into retirement?
“I understand people might get frustrated when they see players coming over maybe a bit later in their career,” he said in a soft voice barely audible over construction outside the new stadium. “But that’s for me to show with performances that I’m not here just to be on holiday. I’m here to work, and I’ll have plenty of time when I finish playing to enjoy myself and have holidays.”
Every player will say such things, but will they back it up? By the weekend, he had. Any lingering doubts about Rooney’s commitment to United’s cause — and, for the time being, his physical capacity to continue performing at a high level — were put to rest in the vanishing moments of an even match with visiting Orlando City on Sunday night.
In a matter of seconds, he both prevented defeat and invited victory.
With legs that skeptics claimed wouldn’t hold up in a physically demanding league, Rooney, 32, chased down an opponent in the open field, making a clinical tackle as Will Johnson was lining up a distant shot toward a vacant net, then regained his footing before launching a cross-field pass that met Luciano Acosta’s cranium for the go-ahead goal deep into stoppage time for a 3-2 triumph.
A four-time MLS Cup champion, United has enjoyed many memorable moments since its birth in 1996. This one, which unfolded at a critical juncture in a losing season, will undoubtedly ascend to near the top of the list.
Over the years, there have been spectacular goals and dramatic finishes, stirring comebacks and playoff theater. But one would be hard-pressed to summon a single sequence featuring so many uncommon elements: a goalkeeper in the attacking end for a team desperate for three points; a striker executing a defensive gem; the same player supplying a long-distance assist; and the shortest player on the field scoring on a header to cap his first MLS hat trick.
Coach Ben Olsen doesn’t review match highlights until the following day. He made an exception for this one.
“It was one of those nights we will all remember,” Olsen said Tuesday. “There are a lot of [crappy] times in this job, so it’s important to enjoy some of the highs . . . Incredible play by Wayne. Selfless play. That is what type of guy he is. He has elevated our group in a lot of ways.”
Rooney first endeared himself to the home supporters July 28 by battling an opponent with a 10-inch height advantage in defending a corner kick — and, in the process, suffering a broken nose and a facial cut that required five stitches. In the subsequent match, dismissing suggestions to wear a mask, he blocked a ball with his face, a blow that drew additional blood.
While upgrading his fitness level after a two-month layoff, he has started four of six matches and recorded a goal and three assists. (Amid three games in eight days, he might not start Wednesday against the Portland Timbers at Audi Field.)
Rooney has forged chemistry with Acosta, the 5-foot-3 playmaker from Argentina, and attackers Yamil Asad and Zoltan Stieber. He has provided leadership on a team with 13 of 27 players, including seven regulars, who are 25 or younger.
And behind the scenes, he has gone to great lengths to bond with teammates, an outreach that has smoothed the midseason transition for everyone and strengthened team unity ahead of a playoff push.
“You don’t know what to expect when a guy like him arrives, but when he first got here, he went around the locker room and had conversations with everyone,” defender Steve Birnbaum said. “He wants to get to know you. He also demands a lot from people. He’s a winner and people see he is giving the push we need.”
Before accepting Olsen’s invitation to become captain — a role that was vacant until this summer — Rooney approached Birnbaum, the 2017 leader.
“The first thing I said to Ben was, ‘Let me speak to Steve,’ ” Rooney said during last week’s interview with The Post and Sports Illustrated. “If when I was captain of Manchester United and a new player came in and was made captain after two weeks, I wouldn’t necessarily be too pleased.”
Birnbaum wasn’t the formal captain this year — no one wore the armband — but he was a de facto leader.
“I thought Wayne should be captain,” he said. “His word holds more meaning to people. I want him to lead this team. He was great about it. It was cool for him to come up to me and talk about it.”
Birnbaum calls himself Rooney’s “right-hand man now.”
Olsen described the onetime English national team captain as “not overly vocal or micromanaging every guy, but he gets it. His actions on the field the other night has bumped him up into a different category now with his teammates and the fans.”
Before offering Rooney the largest contract in club history (an estimated $5 million per year guaranteed through at least 2020), United wanted to ensure he would come for the right reasons. With so much money invested, the club did not want to get stuck — as some MLS teams have — with a high-profile player more concerned about economic victories than 90-minute victories.
“We spoke to the people who know him,” Olsen said. “It’s not in his DNA. But guys like him always have to prove themselves because of the pressure of coming here and the name recognition and the money spent on him. But he lives with that. That’s what these guys do; they have something in them that keeps pushing them to succeed.”
Rooney’s acclimation has involved several facets. On the field, he said, he has noticed greater emphasis on athletic ability than tactics.
“The games can be a bit more open,” he said. “When you’re young, all you want to do is go and play and try to score goals, but you obviously can’t do that all game. Once we get the balance right, the team will progress even more . . . They’re still trying to learn my game and I’m still trying to learn the rest of the players.”
There are off-the-field differences, as well.
MLS teams rarely use charters, so Rooney has found himself in busy airport terminals and cramped coach seats. Accustomed to private hotel rooms, Rooney was offered the same arrangement by United; he declined. He’s been rooming with goalkeeper David Ousted.
“It’s important the players see I’m in it with them and, whatever they’re doing, I’ll be doing the same,” he said, adding, “You agree to come here, you need to adapt.”
For the first time in Rooney’s career, his wife Coleen (1.26 million Twitter followers) has been allowed to attend training sessions, he said. Last week, she and the couple’s 8-year-old son, Kai, sat on a bench with reporters and staff members as the team practiced at a shabby facility outside RFK Stadium. (A new venue will open next year in Leesburg.)
Part of the reason Rooney chose to sign with United was the lifestyle in D.C. — far from the searing soccer spotlight in North West England, where he had spent all of his previous 16 seasons, and calmer than New York or Los Angeles. “They’re way too busy for me, those places,” said Rooney, whose family has lived in rural Cheshire County, England.
He and Coleen are seeking to rent a house in a quiet area of the Washington metro area for a family that includes three other boys ranging in age from 6 months to 5 years. A decision whether to buy property will probably wait.
Rooney, though, speaks as though he is here for the long term — and focused on leaving a legacy at United’s new stadium.
“If I didn’t have that ambition, I wouldn’t be here. You want to come here, and when I finish playing, see pictures up in the locker room and in the stadium. 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.’ ”
United notes: With goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s arrival, the club has waived Steve Clark (eight starts late last year, three this season). Hamid will make his 2018 D.C. debut Wednesday in place of David Ousted, Olsen said . . . Acosta was named MLS player of the week . . . Defender Nick DeLeon, sidelined since late May with a knee injury, returned to training Tuesday. There’s no timetable on a possible return to active duty.
D.C. United vs. Portland Timbers
Where: Audi Field.
When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
TV: WJLA 24/7 News (formerly NewsChannel 8).
Records: United 5-9-6, 21 points; Timbers 10-4-7, 37 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Oniel Fisher, Steve Birnbaum, Kofi Opare, Joseph Mora; MFs Zoltan Stieber, Russell Canouse, Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, Yamil Asad; F Wayne Rooney.
Portland probable starters: GK Jeff Attinella; Ds Alvas Powell, Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante, Zarek Valentin; MFs Diego Chara, David Guzman, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri; Fs Dairon Asprilla, Andy Polo.