The first ‘We Want Rooney’ chants echoed through the packed Audi Field crowd around the 51st minute on Saturday night. They faded out quickly, but picked up again just three minutes later. The home-side held a 1-0 lead, and the fans who had spent the first half enjoying the atmosphere in D.C. United’s new stadium wanted to see the team’s new superstar.
D.C. coach Ben Olsen obliged, bringing Rooney on in the 58th minute to a loud chorus of cheers. The crowd was filled with a collage of jerseys that chronicled Rooney’s storied career. Red Manchester United shirts, blue Everton shirts, white England national team jerseys and plenty of freshly printed copies of the black D.C. United shirt Rooney wore as he took the field.
Rooney didn’t find the net on his MLS debut, but he showed the quality that made him a legend in England, helping D.C. christen its new stadium with a 3-1 victory. Rooney was involved in the build-up play of D.C. United’s final two goals, with his lone shot of the night being a speculative 88th-minute effort that floated over the Vancouver net.
It wasn’t much of a surprise that Rooney didn’t start on Saturday. With temperatures nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff, and Rooney still working his way to full fitness after his summer break, Olsen waited for the match to be two-thirds done before bring him on after nightfall had set in and temperatures were much cooler.
Rooney didn’t need long to settle in, with his deft touch pinging passes around the field as his teammates benefited from the space he helped create with his mere presence. He was involved in the passing sequences on both of D.C. United’s second-half goals, including the assist to set up Paul Arriola’s stunning second goal of the night.
The speedy Rooney of his prime years has been replaced by a slower but still dangerous version of the player who can still make the perfect run, can still finish chances when he puts himself in position to score, and can set up teammates when opposing defenses pay too much attention to him.
“He’s really able to bring the pressure to him, and with the quality that he has he can still hold it up and get the pass off and we run through," Arriola told Goal. "Lucho (Acosta) and I, I really think we can really thrive with him and us being in the middle because all we do is run off him.”
It will be up to Olsen to figure out where best to deploy Rooney, but the veteran manager sees his versatility making that job an easy one.
“There’s been a lot of talk about where’s Wayne going to play,” Olsen said. “In my mind he’s a number nine, but he’s a versatile nine. We can use him in a bunch of different roles, whether he drops off as a 10, and service some areas. He can play the eight for you and still play-make out of that position.
“It’s nice to have versatility and I think he’s going to be just fine in whatever role we use him in.”
There was some thought that Rooney would just slide into the starting striker role for D.C. United, with Jamaican speedster Darren Mattocks moving to the bench, but Olsen made it clear he could partner the two together at forward in a 4-4-2, or keep Mattocks as a lone striker with Rooney in a midfield role.
“Darren Mattocks is a wonderful player, scored a lot of goals this year, but he’s also a very different player in comparison to Wayne," Arriola said. “The past year at Everton he played more as an 8, as a 10. He’s gotten away from the player who runs in behind. Now he likes to hold the ball up. Today he did it multiple times. I think that’s great because it will make defenses understand that the threat of not just Wayne, but the front four or five is a real problem.”
D.C. United had been a bit of an afterthought in MLS due to its league-worst record, but the reality is Rooney is joining a team with some serious attacking weapons, a group that should thrive with his quality and experience, which was clear to see in his first MLS match, now in the mix.
“What he will bring is a real tactical sense in what the game needs, and not in a way that benefits him only,” Olsen said. “He’s going to understand when he needs to stay high in this moment, to now leave space for Lucho (Acosta), because ultimately Lucho is going to be the one to give him the ball. If someone is playing over the top, he understands when to come low. You see that in a very short amount of time, not only in the trainings, but in the game today.
“The speed of play here, when guys come over that have been playing at the level they’ve been playing at for a that long, it’s a touch slow,” Olsen said. “And they exploit it with their brains, they exploit it with their quality. He’s going to be a nice addition.”
Rooney says he is settling in quickly, both on and off the field, even as he adjusts to a new life and experiences far different from the ones he grew accustomed to after a career spent playing in the Premier League.
For example, Rooney experienced having media in the team locker room for the first time. He faced questions in a separate press conference, but watched from his locker with a smile as Arriola faced the press. Rooney even chatted some with reporters who stuck around after the crowd had moved on, looking more comfortable than you would ever have expected him to look after years of dealing with the glare of the British media.
Rooney has also experienced something many international stars have enjoyed in America, relative anonymity.
While players from Raul to Thierry Henry have enjoyed being able to walk around New York City without being bothered, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic can roller-blade in Venice Beach, Rooney had his own similar experience. He spent part of July 4th among the crowds on the grass at the national mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. He went relatively unnoticed, something that would never happen in England, and something he clearly enjoyed.
If he keeps playing like he did on Saturday, Rooney’s anonymity in sports-mad Washington could be tough to maintain, and if he can help D.C. United climb out of the Eastern Conference basement, he will have to get used to fans at Audi Field chanting his name.
It’s a challenge unlike any Rooney has faced, but it’s one he’s excited to take on.
“It’s different, that’s for sure,” Rooney told Goal when asked about the challenge of joining a team in the middle of its season. “Nobody likes to be in last place, but we have the games, and the games at home. I’m short on time to get fit but I’m trying to get back fit so we can make a run at this. We’ve got time to turn it around.”