The captain’s contract with United, which earned him a team-record $3.5 million in base salary this season, was to have run through the 2021 season. United will not receive a transfer fee, multiple people said on the condition of anonymity, but will clear his hefty contract from its books starting next year.
Rooney, who turns 34 in October, will remain with United for the final nine regular season matches and the playoffs, should United (9-7-9, 36 points) advance.
This week, while a Derby executive met with D.C. officials in Washington and Rooney flew to England for talks with his future employers, United’s effort to persuade him to stay through next season failed.
Rooney is slated to rejoin United on Wednesday for conditioning, then train as normal Thursday ahead of Sunday’s showdown with fellow international star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Audi Field.
“Football is a game where opportunities come up,” Rooney said in a phone interview from Derby, where he completed paperwork and conducted a news conference, “and as a player you have to make those decisions, which aren’t always easy and won’t please everyone. I just hope everyone respects the decision and understands it is a step toward the next chapter in my career in football.”
The possibility of an immediate transfer to England was still in play until Monday night, but United wanted to retain Rooney for the playoff push. Besides, the optics of an abrupt move would not have reflected well on anyone involved, except maybe Derby.
Rooney said he wanted to complete his sterling tenure in proper fashion.
“I started the season with D.C., and I made it clear I wanted to end the season with D.C.,” he said. “For the players, for the fans, it’s important I give everything to help go as far as we can.”
The move, multiple people close to the situation said, was prompted by his wife’s desire to live full-time again in England and closer to extended family. The couple and their four children have been living in Bethesda, Md., after they spent their entire lives in the Manchester-Liverpool area. Derby is about 90 miles southeast of Liverpool.
“After speaking to Wayne and understanding his difficult situation of being so far away from his family, we have accepted that this is the best decision for all parties,” United co-chairmen Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien said in a statement. “Wayne is an exceptional leader and one of the most iconic players to play the game, so we look forward to his continued contributions to the team this season.”
Rooney acknowledged family considerations came into play, saying: “It was one of the factors, of course. It was something we looked at. It was that, and it was obviously an opportunity to start at a big club coaching and working under [Derby Manager] Phillip Cocu as well. When I sat down and looked at it, I just felt at this stage in my career it was the right time and opportunity to take it.”
Derby plays in England’s League Championship and is aiming to gain promotion to the Premier League after 12 seasons in the second division. Rooney, who has shared his desire to enter the coaching ranks when he retires, will play for and assist Cocu, a former Dutch star.
United Coach Ben Olsen said, “I have no doubt he is the type of guy — and he has the type of character — to see this season out in the right way."
Midfielder Paul Arriola said: “It’s like when someone is leaving the company but they still tell you they’ve got six months left. You kind of appreciate them more. That’s how I hope the team reacts. I know Wayne is going to be giving his all. He is a winner and wants to end his D.C. career on a high note.”
Since his arrival last summer on a free transfer from Everton of the Premier League, Rooney has posted 23 goals and 14 assists in 43 MLS matches. His impact on the club, though, was immeasurable as he provided a performance and marketing jolt coinciding with the opening of Audi Field in July 2018.
Defender Steve Birnbaum called Rooney’s imminent departure “devastating. We are losing a great player, an all-time player, someone who came to this club and really lifted us up and propelled us into the playoffs last year.”
Family issues have caused disruptions along the way. Two weeks ago, Rooney skipped a match at Atlanta to join his family vacationing in England. At the time, club officials said, he was also dealing with minor injuries and needed a break from game action. But it was about more than his physical well-being, multiple people said.
He returned for the subsequent game in Chicago and reported to Orlando for the MLS All-Star Game, where he not only started against Atletico Madrid but was one of three all-stars to participate in a skills challenge a day earlier.
Behind the scenes, however, United began to prepare for his possible departure. To provide long-term cover — and to bolster the struggling attack this season — the club reached a deal to acquire Ola Kamara from Chinese club Shenzhen for about $2.5 million. A formal announcement is expected Wednesday.
Kamara, 29, scored 48 goals in 90 MLS matches between 2016 and 2018. He arrived in Washington over the weekend and is awaiting clearance to practice and play.
United has also acquired midfielder Felipe Martins from the Vancouver Whitecaps for $75,000 in targeted allocation money in 2020 and a 2020 international roster slot and, according to people familiar with the deal, Emmanuel Boateng from the Galaxy for unspecified financial considerations.
Martins, 28, will address an urgent need for defensive midfielders in the wake of injuries to Russell Canouse and Chris Durkin and a red-card suspension to Júnior Moreno. Both Canouse and Durkin will miss several weeks; Moreno will return next week.
Boateng, 25, is a speedy winger who has appeared in 21 matches this season (seven starts).
United also made deals with Minnesota and Portland involving allocation money and roster slots but no players.
With the transfer and trade deadline approaching late Wednesday night, United was also in negotiations to purchase Argentine winger Mateo Garcia, 22, from Spanish club Las Palmas. (He was on loan with Aris in Greece last season.) The price tag is up to $3 million, one person familiar with the situation said.
MLS clubs are able to sign free agents until the Aug. 30 roster freeze, keeping in play someone such as Argentine midfielder Yamil Asad, who played for Atlanta and D.C. before returning home this past winter.
Long term, D.C. has had preliminary contact with agents for two high-profile players, Italian forward Mario Balotelli (Olympique Marseille last season) and German midfielder Mesut Özil (Arsenal). No deal would be possible until the winter; both would cost United a fortune.
One of Özil’s representatives is scheduled to meet with D.C. officials in Washington next week, a person close to United said.
United officials said they did not want to comment on the player search.
Asked about Rooney’s legacy here, Olsen said: “I don’t know yet. This isn’t finished. His chapter here is not finished. . . . It’s his responsibility to finish his chapter in a way we know he can.”