On June 24, Wayne Rooney informed Derby County, a soccer club in England’s East Midlands burdened by financial problems and recently relegated to the third division, that he was stepping down after 18 months in his first head coaching job.
“When I saw that he was going to step down, I said, ‘This is a moment,’ ” chief executive Jason Levien said. “I thought there was a narrow window that maybe the timing would be right to bring him here and to help lead us forward.”
Things had gone south quickly for United, too, even after a coaching change in April. Longtime assistant Chad Ashton was named the interim coach, slated to oversee the team for the rest of the season. United, however, never found its groove, prompting Levien and the front office to reach out to Rooney — more than 2½ years after he ended a short but mostly sweet playing tenure in Washington.
“The results weren’t going our way,” said Dave Kasper, United’s president of soccer operations. “We said, ‘Well, this may be something we need to address now.’ ”
Team officials contacted Rooney’s agent, Paul Stretford. There was already a strong relationship in place. Even after Rooney ended his MLS playing career, he remained in communication with former teammates and Levien, who on occasion picked his brain about potential player signings and other soccer topics.
After leaving Derby, Rooney said he planned to weigh his coaching options in Europe, and the assumption around the English game was he would land a job in the Premier League or with a second-division club.
The more thought he put into it, though, he “wanted to experience something different outside of England.”
“There are many managers who don’t take that risk,” he said. “I know it’s a risk because I have to do well. But I’m willing to take that chance to come here and prove myself in a different country in a different league. I’m ready to take the challenge.”
United also interviewed three other candidates in recent weeks, two of whom were not White, satisfying MLS’s diversity policy, two people familiar with the search said.
Rooney, though, was undoubtedly the top choice. To prepare himself, he said he watched several matches on tape and the past two live. “The last game was difficult to watch,” he said of a 7-0 defeat at Philadelphia on Friday.
Over the weekend, a deal was struck. He arrived Sunday night and signed a guaranteed contract through the end of the 2023 season, with a team option for 2024. Terms were not disclosed, but people close to the situation said United will pay him the highest coaching salary in its history, topping $1 million annually.
Until he receives a work visa in a few weeks, Rooney cannot be on the sideline. Ashton will continue to oversee the squad, which resumes play Wednesday against Columbus.
“I’m trying to learn and develop myself as a coach, but also I feel I can create a team here which can rise up the league,” Rooney said. “I really believe that — the way I work, the way I want the team to play, I think it will excite the fans. It will take a little bit of time, but ultimately when we get the players used to it, it will benefit us.”
Rooney had cut short his stay as a player for family reasons. His wife, Coleen, wasn’t happy living abroad full-time after a lifetime in the Manchester-Liverpool area. On Tuesday, though, Rooney said the family dynamic this time is “no issue whatsoever.” He said if his wife had told him to not take the D.C. job, he wouldn’t have accepted it.
“It’s more work as a manager [than a player], so probably best for the time being for my wife and children to stay and allow me to really put my teeth into the job,” he said. He then joked, “I think the kids are ready to get rid of me for a while!”
Coleen Rooney and their four children will remain in England the remainder of this MLS season, which, unless United (5-10-2) rallies for a playoff berth, will end in less than three months. They’ll visit periodically, and he’ll spend much of the offseason in England.
“That was the most important question I had for him when we started talking: ‘How’s it going to work with your family?’ ” Kasper said.
Rooney reassured the organization he is committed to the mission, Kasper said, and won’t abruptly head home for good. Still, United officials acknowledged Rooney isn’t likely to stay for more than a few years.
“I’m hoping he stays quite a long time,” Levien said, “but the realities of people’s personal lives are always a challenge.”
Rooney also said that, though he is focused on turning United’s fortunes, he’s also looking to set himself up for bigger coaching roles in Europe.
“Playing at the top level, you can really choose which club you want to go to,” he said. “As a manager, I’m at the beginning of that journey. I am at a point in my managerial career where I have to put the work in, I have to put the hours in. Of course, I am an ambitious person. One day I want to manage at the top level. This is part of that process in terms of coming here.”
United noted his leadership qualities as a player here and in his coaching tenure at Derby County, which, amid a 21-point penalty in the standings because of financial issues, almost avoided relegation.
“His soccer IQ is unbelievable,” United captain Steven Birnbaum said. “The way he would discuss things in the locker room [in 2018-19] and the adjustments we’d have to make a halftime, it was basically having a second coach.”
As United looks to improve the roster, the club is banking on the Rooney name carrying weight.
“Players are already calling him off the hook,” said Kasper, who is aiming to sign two high-end designated players, among others, before the transfer window closes Aug. 4. “When you tell perspective players Wayne Rooney is the coach, their ears perk up.”
Note: Greek forward Taxi Fountas (nine goals, three assists in 11 matches) was named to the MLS all-star team, which will play the Mexican Liga MX all-stars on Aug. 10 in St. Paul, Minn.