DC United endured a turbulent start to the 2018 Major League Soccer season, but the arrival of Wayne Rooney and the move to a new stadium has seen them find form.
Home matches were a rarity at the beginning of the year, as DC United waited patiently for their new ‘soccer-specific’ stadium, Audi Field, to become available.
The few home games they played will have felt like away days, with three taking place at the Maryland SoccerPlex to the north of Washington DC, and one at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in nearby Annapolis.
The game in Annapolis, against Columbus Crew, was one of only two victories in this early part of the season, with the other coming in San Jose against the Earthquakes.
Their overall pre-Rooney record was two wins, five draws, and seven defeats, and this left them rooted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
They did have games in hand, though, due to the lack of home matches, and this meant many fans remained optimistic that they could mount a late push for the play-offs. Rooney’s arrival further increased their hopes and swelled the ambition.
Because his debut coincided with the opening of the new ground, it’s not an exaggeration to say it felt as though DC United’s season started when Rooney arrived.
His signing served a commercial purpose as the club looked to attract fans into their new home on opening night, but since then it has been all about improving results.
Their record following his arrival reads five wins, one draw, and two defeats, and the club are now just six points off the play-off places. Due to that disruption earlier in the season, they also have four games in hand on Montreal Impact who currently occupy the last play-off spot.
They have the joint-fourth best goal difference in the conference should it come down to that (wins count before goal difference), thanks to them scoring two or more goals in five of their eight games with Rooney.
It has been a stark turnaround from those opening months of the season, and although a number of players have chipped in, their marquee signing has helped change the mood around the capital.
New stadiums can take some time to feel like home as teams often struggle in new surroundings, but DC United have had no such problems at Audi Field winning all but one of their six games there.
Rooney has three goals and three assists in his six starts since arriving in MLS, meaning, on average, he contributes to a goal every time he starts a game.
These are early days in his career across the pond, and his contract runs for three further seasons after this. He’ll be approaching the age of 36 by the time this deal runs out, and for a player who made his senior debut at the age of 16, the final years of this 20-year stretch will really test his legs.
But so far his impact has been a positive one, and rather than treating this as a retirement pay-off, as many of the older high-profile names who head to MLS do, he’s given everything on the pitch, even when things don’t go his way.
This was epitomised in the dramatic encounter with Orlando City, which will go down in the annals of Audi Field history.
The game was tied at 2-2, and in the last minute of injury time DC United sent goalkeeper David Ousted up for a corner. They don’t settle for draws these days.
But it seemed to have backfired. Orlando cleared the corner and Will Johnson broke free with half a pitch between him and the empty goal. Cue Rooney, busting a gut to get back, making a last-man tackle, carrying the ball forward, and sending in a long pass to the far post where Luciano Acosta leapt above the hordes to head home his hat-trick goal and the match-winner.
The incident was referred to the VAR, and as they checked it the camera cut to Rooney, hands on knees, gasping for air after a full-on 96-minute stint.
The goal was given (how could it not be?) despite a hint of offside. Acosta was the hat-trick hero on the night, but Rooney was the instigator, and this type of play is exactly what team-mates want to see from their high-earning designated player.
Among the bright moments there have been a few frustrating periods where he has been unable to influence games as he might like, but this is not for want of trying.
In the recent win against New England Revolution, the former Everton and Manchester United attacker didn’t manage to add to his goals or assists tally, and not everything he did came off, but he still had more touches of the ball than any other player on his team.
Rooney may wear the No. 9 shirt, but his involvement is more than that of a centre-forward. Head coach Ben Olsen has given him the responsibility of acting as the focal point, but also the freedom to drop into midfield should he want to become more involved in the build-up play.
Like all the best experienced players, he is able to act as a coach on the pitch, too. As well as giving his all for DC United, he will spend the next few years completing his coaching badges, and America might not be a bad place to start the next chapter of his career.
But for now he’s still enjoying playing, and at times there is a glint in his eye not seen since his teenage years. This all bodes well for DC United as they push for the play-offs.
World Football Index’s DC United expert, Richard Kharman, echoes these thoughts.
“The signing of Wayne Rooney has already paid dividends for DC United. Not only did it attract in more fans, but his skills were a major upgrade for the Black-and-Red,” said Kharman.
“It was evident DC United needed a goal scorer and they found that with Rooney. What they probably did not envisage was his playmaking ability, tenacity, heart, and grit.
“Rooney is inspiring his team-mates to play better and that they are. I am not sure if manager Ben Olsen and company knew this was coming, but, boy, I’m sure they’re happy as heck Rooney’s in DC.”
If you’re reading on skysports.com comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click ‘Report’.