From the moment he stepped foot in America, Wayne Rooney was D.C. United's identity.
He joined a club that had been decaying for years much likes the team's home, RFK Stadium, a venue that had become more known for its collection of plants and wildlife than the memorable moments of yesteryear. On the day Rooney signed, D.C. sat dead last in the Eastern Conference with two wins from their first 12 matches and 11 points separating them from a playoff spot. A once-proud club was now known for being cheap, bad and downright broken.
What happened next was nothing short of spectacular. That word, "spectacular," is a fitting one to describe what Rooney has brought to D.C., a club that had never truly had a megastar to call its own. He brought hope, a sense of identity and the foundation of a culture. Perhaps most importantly, he brought a renewed energy and enthusiasm, a reinvigorated player to lead a reinvigorated team.
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But that's coming to an end in the very near future as Rooney prepares for his D.C. exit much sooner than many anticipated. Is it enough to dent the legacy of a player that brought so much in such a short timeframe? Perhaps, but that all depends on what happens next.
After less than 24 hours of reports and rumors, Derby County confirmed on Tuesday that the 33-year-old forward will return to England in January to join the Championship side in a player-coach role. As a result, Rooney's D.C. United tenure will come to an end with the forward not seeing out the entirety of the three-and-a-half-year deal he originally signed in the summer of 2018.
It is a decision that makes a lot of sense for Rooney. It gives the forward a chance to return to the normalcy of England, giving his family a sense of comfort that could not be found in the U.S. capital. It gives him a chance to continue playing at a high level at a club where he can regularly compete. And, perhaps most importantly, it gives him a chance to prepare for what lies beyond his playing days at a club that just served as the springboard for Frank Lampard's return to Chelsea.
Still, when it comes to his D.C. tenure, it all feels a bit premature. Fortunately for the club, Rooney will in fact see out the season with a team that currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference and still maintains MLS Cup aspirations that only truly began when the forward arrived last summer.
But unfortunately for the club, those aspirations will be short-lived as the team will no doubt enter a massive rebuild that will force the team to rethink and refine its identity.
When Rooney arrived, D.C. was nothing short of terrible. They were the worst team in the conference in a city that had once been a central hub for American soccer culture. D.C. was once home to legends like Johan Cruyff, Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, and Eddie Pope, and now the city would be home to Rooney.
He provided 12 goals and seven assists in 18 games last season, pushing D.C. all the way into the playoffs via a fourth-place finish. He brought his flair with him all the way from England, scoring long-range missiles and stunning free kicks. He was exactly the shot in the arm that D.C. needed, even if the club fell short once the postseason hit.
But it's not the numbers or even the results that have defined Rooney's D.C tenure thus far; it's been the genuine impact. It's moments like tracking back 40 yards, making a tackle and firing a ball to Luciano Acosta to seal a win over Orlando City. It's something like mentoring Acosta and pushing him to become a star himself, earning interest from Paris Saint-Germain last winter. It's little things like taking part in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge. It's rejecting first-class flights and private hotel rooms in an effort to be part of a team when being a superstar would have been much easier. Overall, it was about stepping into and being a part of a culture in a foreign country when simply being Wayne Rooney is a culture in and of itself.
It remains to be seen what comes next, and the responsibility for defining that falls on both Rooney and the club.
For Rooney, the next four months will all but define his D.C. legacy and, by and large, his legacy in the United States. The club is still very much an MLS Cup contender and, if Rooney is willing to truly push forward at maximum effort, they should still be playing in the fall.
It is a big ask, considering Rooney's age and knowing full well that he'll be jumping right into the Championship in January, but Rooney has thus far shown the willingness to go above and beyond for D.C. Can he lead them to an MLS Cup? That remains to be seen, but he'll be looked upon favorably as long as he truly fights towards that aim for the rest of his time in the nation's capital.
And for the club, its responsibility will be building something on the foundation Rooney laid. The signing can't just be a flash in the pan, a big name to open a new stadium. With Acosta and goalkeeper Bill Hamid also possibly heading towards the exit this winter, D.C. will face a massive rebuild in a league that is constantly reinventing itself. They can't let momentum falter and they can't let Rooney's departure be the end of whatever it is the club is building right now.
No matter which way you look at it, though, Rooney's overall legacy is entirely secure. He'll be remembered as an Everton hero and a Manchester United legend. He'll end his career as England's all-time leading goalscorer and, when he does eventually make his move into coaching, he'll certainly have a chance to forge a new path after smashing so many records as a player.
But Rooney's MLS legacy? That will be defined based on what happens over the next four months. But when he does depart the league this winter, D.C. will look back fondly on a year and a half of spectacular brought to the club by a megastar that was simply willing to be part of the team.