The Get is critical to hope. That is why D.C. United, a four-time Major League Soccer champion eager to rise from the league’s gutter, is more than happy to pay aging icon Wayne Rooney about $13 million to play in Washington for the next 2½ years — in fabulous, $400 million Audi Field, which opens July 14. It’s hard to predict the impact Rooney, 32, will have during his time here. Getting him is one thing. Having him is much different. But there’s little doubt that the beginning, when hope seems ubiquitous, will be enthralling.
Celebrate now. Get your fascination fix. Then prepare for a cumbersome period in which D.C. United will be under pressure to make the most of what Rooney has left, build a winner around him to reignite a proud franchise and entice 20,000 people to fill the new stadium regularly.
Avid soccer enthusiasts wonder, appropriately, whether this version of Rooney is the best option to resurrect a team that has been in last place in the Eastern Conference for a season and a half and won its most recent MLS Cup title in 2004. Rooney isn’t the goal-scoring machine who set records for Manchester United and the English national team. His game is now more about savvy, versatility and fundamentals. He’s not beating Manchester City with a highlight-of-the-century bicycle kick anymore. He probably wouldn’t even try that against the Vancouver Whitecaps. But he is still a well-rounded player who can think the game, pass with accuracy and create for himself and others better than anyone on the D.C. United roster.
Cynics consider the Rooney acquisition a risky publicity stunt, one that could backfire because of his history of drinking and allegations of womanizing. Certainly, D.C. United can’t afford any bad behavior from its franchise player and a public figure certain to captivate the city.
But while we know the man, we don’t know him yet. It seems unnecessarily speculative to spend too much time wondering what could go wrong in his personal life. He’s old by sporting standards, but he’s a young man capable of great maturation at this point in his life. It’s best to give Rooney a clean slate and explore who he is in a new country with fresh eyes.
Rooney is an instant top-shelf D.C. star, and that says a lot about his international appeal because the city already has (and we’re keeping the list incredibly tight here) Alex Ovechkin, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, John Wall and Elena Delle Donne. For at least the rest of the season, Rooney’s home games should be see-and-be-seen spectacles. Publicity stunt? It’s mostly good business to take this chance.
The stadium opening is an opportunity to relaunch the franchise. Part of doing so means that D.C. United must attempt again, perhaps like it never has, to broaden the fan base. There’s the potential for some tension among die-hard fans, casual fans and people who just love a good D.C. event. But for the franchise, this is no time to be parochial. If the only goal was to improve the team, could the front office have pursued a younger, cheaper and better talent? Of course. And it would have inched its way in the right direction while playing in a sparkling venue that stood half- or three-quarters full and struggled to justify the investment.
MLS is a growing league in a world that has better options and more popularity for soccer elsewhere. Many often look at these aging, high-profile international acquisitions as permeating the belief that MLS is a secondary destination serving as a pre-retirement curtain call. They see it as the hybrid of a senior tour and developmental league. They intimate that the league can’t be respected internationally by operating this way. It’s more nuanced than that, however.
Sure, it’s important to be careful and cognizant of perception. But MLS is honest about what it is: not there yet but intent on continuing to build. You can’t exist for 22 seasons and expect to compete with the English Premier League. There’s a process to becoming relevant and sustaining interest, and it’s not foolish to pursue as many avenues as possible to connect to a vast, soccer-obsessed world.
Look at the recent wave of North American soccer franchises that enjoyed strong launches, including the past three MLS Cup champions: the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC. In their own styles, those teams have done a good job of trying to be not just an MLS team but a soccer brand aspiring to transcend where it happens to play. With the sport’s abundance of international tournaments and friendlies, there’s a chance, no matter how difficult, to be greater than merely some team from a secondary league. Those aspirations actually benefit MLS. They create different points of entry for potential followers, which is never a bad thing.
That said, it’s impossible to understate the challenge D.C. United faces. The Rooney experiment needs to be a progressive experience, not a bust, on and off the field. It’s going to take time. The team needs more than Rooney moving forward. And while he should be expected to show immediate flashes of greatness, he is joining a team in the middle of the season and needs to adjust his body to the MLS schedule. For the remainder of this season, Rooney might be playing his way into making a future impact.
Whatever happens, it figures to be loud. It figures to get attention. As D.C. United has learned, noise and spotlight are difficult to acquire.
Here comes Rooney, initiating hope. Then what? Well, that’s the hard part. But in the beginning, it always feels spectacular to get a superstar and watch the darkness dissipate.