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After blockbuster MLS debut, Rooney faces an even tougher challenge: repeating it

20:00 EAT 19/02/2019
Wayne Rooney D.C. United 2018
The veteran Englishman entered the league with a bang in 2018, but he won't have several of the same advantages this season

Things could hardly have gone better for Wayne Rooney in his debut season with D.C. United.

After joining the club last year at midseason, the veteran striker hit the ground running and scored 12 goals in 20 regular season games, helping United to a dramatic late-season surge that saw the team go from last place to a playoff berth – a performance which netted him fourth place in the league's MVP voting.

Rooney did what seemed nearly impossible for a player who was hyped as someone who would do no less than usher in a new era for a franchise – he lived up to expectations.

Now the bar has been set for Rooney’s second season with United, his first full campaign in the league. Greatness has become a baseline expectation for Rooney, and meeting that standard in 2019 will be an even bigger challenge than living up to the initial hype.

The 33-year-old is back with his teammates after an offseason that lasted nearly three months, a much longer period between seasons than Rooney ever experienced playing in the Premier League.

“This offseason was the longest I've ever had,” Rooney told reporters last month. “I think six weeks ago I was ready to go back into training.”

Having a full preseason with his teammates is a luxury that Rooney wasn’t afforded in 2018 when he joined United at midseason. And yet, though it’s never easy integrating with a new team midway through their campaign, Rooney had plenty of factors in his favor when he made his D.C. United debut on July 14 last year.

First of all the veteran striker came to MLS well rested, as his former club Everton’s season had been over for two months. Sure, there may have been a bit of rust, but a player of Rooney’s caliber was never going to take long to get up to speed.

Rooney was also joining a franchise on a huge collective high, playing his first D.C. United game on the same night the club’s new stadium, Audi Field, also made its debut.

Playing at Audi Field would become a recurring theme of Rooney’s first season with United. The club was on the road for most of the first half of last season while its new home was still under construction. After Rooney joined, he was able to enjoy United’s heavily backloaded schedule full of home matches.

Rooney would play just five of his 21 matches, including the team’s playoff game, away from Audi Field, giving him plenty of time to settle into his new city with his wife and four children.

“I am really enjoying it,” Rooney said of living in the Washington area. “As time goes on we have found more things to do as a family and more places to go and take the children. We are enjoying it and the kids are settled into school and so we are happy."

United’s backloaded schedule meant Rooney did not experience the notorious grind of a full season, including the unique and grueling travel conditions that MLS players experience. He didn’t have to deal with flights back and forth across the country – the farthest he traveled for a game was Chicago.

Travel in MLS (most of which is done via commercial flights – teams are only allowed a few chartered flights per season) can be especially tough for players from Europe. In England, the farthest Rooney had to travel for an away match is roughly the distance between D.C. and New York – one of the closest trips United has all season.

That kind of travel is a lot for any player to handle, let alone a 33-year-old with 17 professional seasons already under his belt.

Yet United manager Ben Olsen doesn’t seem worried about how his star forward will handle the additional workload in 2019.

“I’m not too concerned with how the schedule will affect Wayne,” Olsen told Goal.

“We feel as if we have a well thought-out plan physically for him to set him up to succeed.”

Another potential pitfall for Rooney in 2019 is how teams will adjust to defending the dynamic partnership that he formed last season with the club’s other star, Luciano Acosta.

It was something of a mystery how the two would combine when Rooney joined United, but the pair quickly formed a dynamic on-field bond that saw them combine to devastating effect. Rooney went even as far to call Acosta one of the best he'd played alongside

“It’s a very tough duo to prepare for because of the unpredictability of Lucho and Wayne’s intelligence and experience,” Olsen said.

Opposing coaches will have more time to prepare in 2019, though, and more film to study, giving them the ability to adjust their defensive scheme to counter United’s premier partnership.

Of course, stopping Rooney and Acosta is easier said than done, but the element of surprise will no longer exist in 2019.

Neither will the unique set of circumstances that Rooney experienced in his debut MLS season. If Rooney can replicate his 2018 form this season, it will be an even greater accomplishment than his impressive first act.