As quickly as the outlook brightened, however, it unraveled in rapid and horrific style. Toronto scored four goals before the 30-minute bonus period was halfway done and coasted to a 5-1 victory at BMO Field.
He had scored just once since July 1, missing several matches along the way, but there was no denying his contributions, on and off the field.
“It’s an unfortunate way for him to finish here,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “I’m sure he would have wanted to hit the back of the net and push us into the next round.”
For the second consecutive autumn, his season slipped away in the opening round of the postseason. Both times, elimination came after the standard 90 minutes.
Rooney left the locker room without speaking to reporters, heading to the team charter back to Washington before a trip home to join second-flight Derby County as a player and assistant coach.
“He turned our team around completely,” defender Steven Birnbaum said. “He has just been a great presence for us. We’ve been lucky to have him.”
Rooney did have three outstanding chances to score in the second half — Ola Kamara had one as well — but United did not pull even until Lucas Rodríguez’s shocking goal in stoppage time.
Toronto had gone ahead in the 32nd minute when Marco Delgado capitalized on goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s error and scored from close range.
With time melting away, though, Rooney served a corner kick. Frédéric Brillant won the header. Paul Arriola’s stab was unsuccessful. On the back side, Rodríguez knocked it in, silencing an announced crowd of 25,331 that was preparing to party.
United’s optimism did not last long. Three minutes into extra time, substitute Richie Laryea beat Hamid from a tight angle. Two minutes later, Jonathan Osorio tapped in from the doorstep. Osorio scored on a sublime one-timer from the top of the box in the 103rd minute, and former United player Nick DeLeon added a sensational goal before the extra-time break.
United allowed more goals in that stretch than in the previous six matches combined.
“You go out with a lot of momentum,” Arriola said. “It’s unfortunate we give up a goal so early” in extra time.
Having thrown so many attacking players into the effort to tie it, United did not have the proper personnel to carry it through another 30 minutes.
Nonetheless, Olsen said: “We’re pros. We should have a better mentality and make better plays.”
United, the No. 5 seed, has not won a playoff game since 2015. Fourth-seeded Toronto advanced to play at New York City FC on Wednesday in a conference semifinal.
United conceded possession in the first half. When D.C. did claim the ball, it did not do much with it. Connections were off, the buildup was slow, and four corner kicks did not yield any serious threats.
Toronto went ahead when Hamid failed to properly handle Alejandro Pozuelo’s 25-yard bid. A finalist for MLS goalkeeper of the year and the co-leader in shutouts, Hamid has made few mistakes this season. And given Hamid’s vast experience, United did not expect him, of all players, to slip up.
But on this sequence, with the shot skipping toward him, he neither corralled it nor pushed it wide. Instead, he knocked the ball forward, leaving it in the danger zone for Delgado to snap into the net from six yards.
The goal ended United’s shutout streak at 536 minutes, the longest in the league this year.
United’s problems intensified late in the first half when Felipe Martins, whose summer arrival and hearty contributions altered the midfield dynamic, departed with a groin injury. He walked off the field slowly, his shirt pulled over his face to hide his emotions. Olsen consoled him with a hug.
Facing a deficit, Olsen changed the look instead of making a straight-up switch. He inserted Kamara and made a series of positional moves.
After intermission, Toronto continued to set the terms, pushing for the backbreaking goal.
At the other end, Quentin Westberg made three consecutive saves on Rooney. Later, Kamara had a one-on-one but failed to beat Westberg, who used his hip to deflect what should have been the equalizer.
Hope was running out before Rodríguez forced extra time — a 30-minute reprieve that turned into a Canadian nightmare for United.
“We just got punched in the face,” Birnbaum said. “It’s devastating.”
And with it, Rooney marked his short-lived stay in MLS.
“He gave a lot to the organization,” Olsen said. “From a team standpoint, on the field, some wonderful moments. He was a great teammate. He was good to our fans and appreciative of the support. It was a joy to work with him.”