The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There was magic in Wayne Rooney’s feet. Is there magic in his mind?

When Wayne Rooney came to play for D.C. United, he was instantly the most internationally recognizable Washington athlete. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Pick a positive moment from D.C. United’s past five seasons, and there’s a better than fair chance it involves Wayne Rooney’s legs, Wayne Rooney’s feet, Wayne Rooney’s work ethic, Wayne Rooney’s flair — or some combination of them all. A confession: There is one United YouTube highlight and only one United YouTube highlight I have sought out repeatedly — ever. It is from August 2018. It is mesmerizing. We’ll get to it.

More than any figure in, say, the past decade, Rooney — the Manchester United legend, the English scoring icon — made D.C. United appointment television for the casual fan. Audi Field can’t be filled solely with soccer — eh, futbol — cognoscenti, right, Barra Brava? There has to be a draw, and Rooney the player was nothing but.

But as a … coach? There was magic in his football feet. Is there magic in his football mind?

Wayne Rooney reaches agreement to coach D.C. United

United is banking (see the clever verb choice?) that the answer is “Yes.” According to my peerless colleague Steven Goff, United will introduce Rooney as the ninth full-time coach in franchise history at a Tuesday afternoon news conference at Audi Field. A measure of this move’s import: Goff staked out Rooney as he arrived at Dulles International Airport on Sunday night. That’s a beat writer’s dedication, for sure. But it’s a star’s pull, too.

I’m not going to pretend to know — be it in tactics or in talent — what United needs and whether Rooney can help bring it out. That will be addressed at Tuesday’s reintroduction, and it will be shown in United’s remaining 17 regular season games. The most recent of those: a 7-0 lambasting at the hands of Philadelphia on Friday under interim coach Chad Ashton, the longtime assistant under whom the club had won just one of its past eight matches.

Clearly, United needs a jolt. It sits 13th in the 14-team Eastern Conference with the second-worst goal differential in all of MLS. It ranks 17th in the 28-team league in attendance, selling out once in nine home matches. It fired Hernán Losada as coach in April, just six games into the season. It has scored more than one goal once in its past five matches.

Throw in the fact that the region’s soccer community as a whole is pretty beaten up — a season after winning the NWSL championship, the Washington Spirit hasn’t won since opening night, and Washington and Baltimore were overlooked as a host of 2026 World Cup matches — a jolt is timely and needed.

So here comes Rooney — on the sideline. If this seems like a Ted Williams-manages-the-Senators kind of move for relevance, well, maybe it’s because it’s a Ted Williams-manages-the-Senators kind of move for relevance. It should be noted that denizens of that larger stadium across South Capitol Street from Audi Field — Nationals Park — are in the midst of a going-nowhere, rebuilding summer. Why not make whatever sort of splash you can? Maybe a fan with some money in her or his pocket will walk west across South Capitol to Audi Field because Rooney is back.

Seem silly? At some level, sure. But think of it this way: When Rooney came to play for United in 2018, he was instantly the most internationally recognizable Washington athlete — and it wasn’t particularly close. This is hardly scientific, but add up the Twitter followers of the most prominent pros in town — Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, Chase Young and Terry McLaurin of the Commanders, Elena Delle Donne of the Mystics and Juan Soto of the Nationals. You get just more than 3.8 million. That’s 13.4 million fewer than Rooney has by himself. Shoot, if Rooney’s wife, Coleen, were thrown into the mix, she would rank second only to Ovechkin on the D.C. athlete Twitter list, because she has 1.2 million followers on her own.

D.C. United’s Brad Smith out for season with ACL injury

Of course, social media popularity means nothing when it comes to MLS victories, and there is some peril in a franchise having its biggest draw be its coach when it’s clear United also needs an injection of talent. That means, at some point, more spending on players is necessary. Maybe it’s immediate. Maybe it’s in the offseason. This is a franchise that was once one of the league’s pillars, winning four MLS Cups in its first nine seasons. Rooney will now lead a side that hasn’t won a playoff match since 2015.

While it’s impossible to know what kind of coach Rooney will be — his time with second-tier English club Derby County offers limited evidence because the club was overridden by financial problems that cost it points in the standings and eventually led to its relegation — his two seasons as a player here provide something of a clue as to the energy he’ll bring. Those summers of 2018 and ’19, when Audi Field opened and Rooney was running down balls because he simply worked harder than his opponent, were enthralling.

Take the play mentioned earlier, a hallmark moment in United’s history. D.C. was locked in a 2-2 tie with Orlando City in stoppage time at Audi Field. Orlando was playing with 10 men, trying to defend a United corner kick with even D.C. goalkeeper David Ousted surging forward. Orlando managed a clear, and midfielder Will Johnson reached midfield with nothing but grass in front of him. An empty net — and a United loss — loomed.

And here came Rooney. From nowhere. The tackle and strip that followed would have been enough, because they showed everything he was brought in for — effort and commitment, not to mention brute force and will. That he got up, leaving Johnson in his wake, and pushed the ball forward was characteristic of his time here.

He didn’t come to the District for a vacation. He came here to change what United saw as possible. He committed to the club. He committed to the community. His time was fleeting because a young family pulled him back home to England. But he was a beacon while he was around, 23 goals and 15 assists in 48 matches, a 10-match unbeaten streak to close the 2018 regular season, real hope for a return to glory.

Maybe that’s what Rooney will articulate Tuesday: a different path forward to new possibilities. That night four years ago, he took three touches forward, then served a ball across the entirety of the field to little Luciano Acosta, who already had two goals. The ball first found Acosta’s head. It then found the back of the net. Bedlam.

Haven’t seen it? Look it up. You won’t watch it just once.

Wayne Rooney can’t make that kind of play from the sideline. But he automatically brings buzz to a team that badly needs it. What comes next for D.C. United is impossible to say. But what comes next is something it wasn’t when the weekend began: absolutely worth watching.

Loading...