It was a familiar sight to DC United fans: that of Wayne Rooney emerging from the international arrivals gate at Dulles International Airport, ready to start an American sojourn. It was only four years ago that Rooney first touched down in Washington, DC to join the city’s Major League Soccer club as their biggest-ever signing.
Rooney won the club’s fans over quickly with his play on the field, but in a flash he was gone, returning to England after a season and a half to join Derby County.
In that summer of 2018, hundreds of DC United fans were joined by a throng of journalists who followed Rooney through the airport. But on Sunday evening there was no fanfare — only a handful of club employees and a few civilians who recognized the 36-year-old as he walked through the terminal and car park to an SUV that whisked him away. There were no flash bulbs, no autograph-seekers.
Truth be told, before Sunday evening, very few people in DC knew Rooney had already agreed to manage the MLS club.
Yet that fact became readily apparent as soon as Rooney emerged into view, accompanied by four massive travel cases — not the sort of luggage you bring if you’re merely visiting for a job interview. Rooney seems in it for the long haul this time.
Given DC United’s current state of affairs, he’ll need to be.
The club is in disarray.
Along with Chicago Fire, United have the fewest points in MLS and are fresh off a 7-0 rout at the hands of the Philadelphia Union at the weekend that ranks as the worst loss in club history, and joint-worst in league history. In the past weeks, they have lost several key players to injury — namely defender Brad Smith, formerly of Liverpool and Bournemouth, who will miss the remaining three months of the season with a torn ACL, and first-choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who underwent hand surgery and won’t return until late in the season (if at all).
Chad Ashton, the interim coach who will replace Rooney, has been shepherding the club through this rough stretch.
Ashton, an assistant at United for the past 15 years, replaced Hernan Losada in April after the Argentinian was dismissed amid allegations that he had lost the dressing room and was pushing players too far in regards to fitness and lifestyle demands. With the exception of a handful of bright spots — mid-season addition Taxiarchis Fountas has impressed — United have been tough to watch, and even tougher to support.
Rooney’s history with the club is brief but memorable.
He arrived four years ago just as United opened their new stadium, Audi Field.
Historically, DC United are among the most successful clubs in the league, winners of four MLS Cups, three US Open Cups and a host of other trophies. But by 2018, they were in dire straits and had become irrelevant both in MLS and the local sports scene. They were a mid-table team, at best, who almost never progressed past the opening round of the playoffs and often missed them altogether.
Rooney changed that immediately.
He looked reborn with DC United after his 13 years with Manchester United ended in 2017, followed by a season back at boyhood club Everton, completely remaking the club on the pitch.
The former England captain was a model teammate, choosing to remain in the trenches with players who made a fraction of his wages and had none of his fame. Despite his advanced age, he was a highlight specialist, deadly on set pieces, and before long, he began speaking of his desire to enter the coaching ranks. For a time, he seemed a shoo-in to be DC United’s next manager.
WAYNE ROONEY FROM LOW MIDFIELD!!!! pic.twitter.com/dJ5BriAOx3
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) June 27, 2019
But Rooney left midway through a three-year deal, choosing to return to the UK and join Derby, then of the second-tier Championship. He initially signed as a player with an eye on a future coaching career, and within a year was the club’s manager.
In his absence, DC slipped back into irrelevance, both on and off the pitch. They have not made the playoffs since his departure and have struggled to recapture local fans — a matter not helped by the pandemic. Rooney’s return, some observers have noted, may be as much about raising the profile of the club as it is about helping to improve their results.
Because of this, some supporters remain skeptical. Fans in the DC area are discerning; the region is multicultural and has long been a hotbed of soccer support in the United States. Rooney’s brief history as a manager at Derby is nearly impossible to analyze in any black-and-white sense, as fielding a competitive side amid the club’s financial issues seemed difficult at best — something DC United fans are largely aware of.
Still, many of United’s most ardent supporters are undeniably excited by his arrival, seduced not only by his name but by the fact that he was, by and large, the last truly captivating player they had.
Fans have raised other questions as well, though — Rooney’s early departure from DC was framed, at the time, as a personal decision made in part by his wife Coleen seeming unhappy living in the States, something later confirmed by texts entered into evidence during her defamation case against Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy’s wife, Rebekah.
Some wonder whether a move back to the US is viable in the long-term, given those circumstances.
Others in MLS are more optimistic about Rooney’s potential as a manager in the North American league.
Inter Miami manager Phil Neville, a Rooney team-mate at the start of his Manchester United career who later coached him as a member of David Moyes’ Old Trafford staff near the end of it, offered his thoughts on the appointment during a press conference on Monday.
“I suppose Wayne’s got a slight advantage over me coming into the league, because he played in MLS,” Neville told reporters. “He’s got experience in MLS, he’s been on the road trips, he’s played with some of these players, he’s played in these stadiums, been in the environments and the climates. He knows what it’s all about and that gives him a great advantage.
“He’s not one of those managers you read about in MLS that come from foreign shores and it takes them 12 months to 18 months to get used to it and the salary caps. He’s been involved in the salary caps and knows everything about the league.”
Rooney has kept in touch with a handful of DC United’s players and retained an excellent relationship, by and large, with the club’s executives — something made readily apparent by his hiring and his rumored salary of $1,000,000 a year, which would be nearly triple that of his predecessor.
The club have reassured Rooney he’ll have fair influence over personnel selections as the league’s summer transfer window remains open for another few weeks. United have two open “designated player” slots, a distinction reserved for an MLS club’s highest-paid players, and it seems likely they will fill at least one of those in this window.
DC United have been linked recently with unattached Uruguayan legend Luis Suarez, although the 35-year-old former Liverpool, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid attacker has openly stated that any MLS club he plays for would need to be a playoff contender ahead of this year’s World Cup.
United need help all over the pitch. Aside from 26-year-old Greek attacker Fountas, a mid-season acquisition from Austria’s Rapid Vienna who is off to a blistering start with nine goals in his first 10 matches, the club has had few bright spots this season.
Their back line, which has kept them in matches for years, has suddenly become unreliable. They lack fluidity and precision through midfield and they have struggled to score goals. Hamid’s absence doesn’t help, either.
Yet things change fast in MLS.
Generally speaking, if you hit on your designated player signings, for example, you’ll contend. But the league is full of teams who spend meagerly and still make the playoffs, although that pack thins year by year as MLS continues to grow and money continues to flow in.
What kind of outlay United, who are joint-bottom of the Eastern Conference table but don’t have to worry about going down as there’s no relegation in MLS, will make on talent under Rooney remains to be seen.
They are typically not among the league’s highest-spending sides — far from it. And that has been true for some time, a fact Rooney has always been keenly aware of. During his time as a player in DC, he pushed the club to spend more on players, facilities and the like. MLS is a league increasingly filled with billionaire owners who are able to test the limits of the league’s nuanced salary cap structure. DC United’s owners, who are also co-owners of Swansea City, do not have the same resources as some others.
By accepting this job, Rooney must be confident he can thrive in the circumstances he’s being offered. Confident or not, one thing remains clear: he has a lot of work to do.
(Photo: DC United suffered a record 7-0 loss at the weekend. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)