Wayne Rooney has dragged DC United into the playoffs: will Europe call?

Beau Dure at Audi Field on 22 October 2018

Three reclamation projects were on display Sunday in southern Washington DC. The first is the neighborhood itself, revitalized first by Nationals Park, the baseball stadium that cost the city $670m a decade ago. Now Audi Field, the soccer stadium that opened earlier this year, has added to the redevelopment.

The second is DC United, the once-mighty Major League Soccer club that had languished under the burden of paying rent in dilapidated RFK Stadium and didn’t want to spend on foreign stars. While other clubs brought in Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Didier Drogba and David Beckham, United brought in the likes of Hamdi Salihi and Rafael.

The third project is by far the biggest player DC United have ever signed – Wayne Rooney. And Rooney has had a bigger impact on his club than just about anyone an MLS team has ever signed. When he joined, they were firmly in the Eastern Conference basement, with two wins and five draws against seven losses. He made his debut in Audi Field’s inaugural game on 14 July – and United won. Since then, United have won 12, drawn three and lost just four.

On Sunday, with Rooney scoring his 11th and 12th goals of the season, United stretched their unbeaten streak to nine, with victory over New York City FC. The result may have been especially sweet for Rooney, the former Manchester United striker: NYC FC are the sister club of Manchester City. More importantly, DC United clinched an MLS playoff berth that seemed impossible three months ago.

Rooney was at center stage throughout on a brisk, blustery afternoon in the nation’s capital. He had his first chance in the first minute. In the eighth minute, after a dazzling slalom by Luciano Acosta, he slammed home an easy chance. Acosta, a diminutive Argentinian signed from Boca Juniors in 2016, has formed an impressive partnership and friendship with the former England captain.

“Honestly, I don’t have to say anything about [the partnership with Rooney],” Acosta said through a translator after the game. “It shows itself on the field, how well we connect. He’s a great player, very easy to play with. He makes everything easier.”

The MLS league system, with the top half of each regional conference advancing to playoffs that determine the champion, can be baffling to people outside North America. Rooney is confident United’s feat transcends such barriers.

“I don’t think I have to explain to anyone what’s happened,” Rooney said on Sunday. “I think the people who care to see it will see we’re going with great momentum. It’s a great achievement to go from where we were to the playoffs.”

It’s not just Rooney’s considerable scoring output – 12 goals in 19 games – that has reinvigorated United and their fanbase. It’s the way he’s done it. He is not a typical soccer celebrity arrival in the States – some from Latin America as well as Europe – who arrive in MLS expecting to be treated differently from other players. Some of Rooney’s younger teammates make less that $60,000 a year and are barely out of college but he has treated everyone the same. On away trips Rooney has insisted on receiving no special treatment and shares a room. “They asked if I wanted my own room, but I think it would’ve been wrong for me to have a room on my own and the rest of the players share,” Rooney told Sports Illustrated earlier in the season.

It’s fair to say that Rooney’s arrival in DC United did not have the same effect as a big-time NFL or NBA player joining a local team. Indeed, when the Guardian surveyed the crowd at a Washington Nationals baseball game when Rooney’s signing was announced, many people did not know who he was. But he has won the locals over. On 12 August, less than a month after his debut, Rooney sealed his place in supporters’ hearts with a lung-bursting play that showed he had come to compete. With goalkeeper David Ousted (Rooney’s roommate on away trips) up in the opposing box for a corner, Orlando City cleared the ball and Will Johnson sprang free for what should have been an easy goal. Rooney raced back to midfield and won the ball cleanly with a slide tackle. He bounced up, dribbled forward and lofted the ball 40 yards to Acosta for a stoppage-time winner.

Slowly, Rooney has gained recognition in DC, and he has stood out even in a city that has seen unusual sporting success by its standards in the last 18 months. Several of the Washington Capitals, who brought the city its first non-soccer major sports title since 1992 when they won the Stanley Cup earlier this year, stopped by to meet Washington’s newest luminary during their preseason.

It’s easy to dismiss Rooney’s feats as the work of someone who’s merely taking advantage of less experienced and less talented players. The satirical site The Nutmeg News captured this school of thought with a headline after a dazzling Rooney free kick: “Brave Hero Travels Internet Reminding People They Can’t Really Enjoy Rooney’s Goal Because It’s MLS.”

MLS certainly isn’t the Premier League, but Rooney is succeeding immediately at a scale not usually seen among MLS newcomers. The typical new player needs time to adjust to the eccentricities of the league – cross-continent travel, artificial turf, blazing heat and freezing cold. For older players used to manicured grass and leisurely travel, the transition can be especially rough. Beckham needed time to fully adapt. Lothar Matthäus, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo are among those who’ve come into MLS and failed to outshine teammates and opponents with lesser pedigrees. All of which prompts the question: did Everton and the rest of Europe give up on the 32-year-old Rooney too soon? Roy Hodgson said as much himself ahead of Crystal Palace’s match with Everton this weekend.

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The other players who’ve excelled in MLS in their 30s managed to attract interest from European national teams and clubs. If David Beckham could be the subject of a trans-Atlantic tug-of-war between the Galaxy and Milan, then finish his career with Paris St Germain, then what is Rooney worth?

To a major European club, probably a few million dollars. To DC United, everything.

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