Superstar soccer players who make the jump to MLS often have to go through some serious hoops, bells, and whistles. Little kicks and jabs by their opponents during a match, serious questions off of the pitch by supporters and the weight of coming into a league still finding its footing. After ‘proving themselves’ for the worldwide audience it is almost as if they have to ‘prove themselves’ yet again.
If this is true then Wayne Rooney wasted little time proving himself to D.C. United and their supporters. Late in their 2-1 win against the Colorado Rapids Rooney collided with Rapids center-back Axel Sjoberg. Getting up off of the ground the former Manchester United and Everton forward was no longer just sporting the colors and crest of his new side. He was also sporting a crimson mask and what would later be determined as a broken nose.
The incident, which occurred on D.C.’s defensive half, brought a roar to the supporters groups who were sitting directly behind their goal. While his goal earlier in the match put them on the path towards three points that particular moment perhaps overshadowed the goal. Building credibility for superstar players in MLS can be a challenge and in just his third match with United, Rooney proved that he wasn’t just here for a paycheck.
“I don’t think it’s the first time he’s bled in a game,” said D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen after the match. “He is a tough guy and I think that he will shake it off. But again, it shows you what this means to him right now. He is in the box, putting his face on the line, understanding that this is a big moment.”
To say Rooney’s first month in D.C. was a whirlwind would be an understatement. The former England International officially signed with the club on July 2nd just under two weeks before the club would move to their new home at Audi Field Negotiations were at times a challenge with United having navigate MLS’ byzantine signing process. But in the end D.C. got their star forward to kick off their new era.
While United’s on-the-pitch plans were certainly a major factor in his decision to move across the pond so too was “I’ve been to a few different states in the U.S. [D.C.] seems like the right fit to bring my family up,” said Rooney at his initial press conference. “I looked into the area and I wanted to come over and have a look around to see it first-hand. It just seemed like the right place where my family could move over, go to school with other children and have a nice upbringing. I’ve been to places like L.A. and New York and it’s too hectic, it’s like London. For me, I never fancied going to live in London. I need my own space to get away from things when I need to, and Washington seemed to give me that opportunity to do that.”
Moving to D.C. does have its challenges. The club currently stands at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2016 and have already been bounced from the U.S. Open Cup. Although the club did open up their pocketbooks last year to acquire U.S. Men’s National Team midfielders Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse, as well as Hungarian international Zoltan Stieber those moves were just one step in the greater challenge of rebuilding United. They provided depth but D.C. were still looking for that big fish that could provide a little bit of credibility to their overall plan.
There is also of course the change in climate. Moving from England with a moderate to cooler climate to Washington D.C. where 100F degree days with 80 percent humidity can be a difficult adjustment for some. “Obviously, it’s hot, but the one thing which I was concerned about was whether it would be difficult to breath with the humidity, but in the sessions, I’ve had it’s been fine,” he said. “Of course, I’ll have to adapt and hopefully get used to it, but it’s been okay so far.”
United have eased Rooney into their game plans, using him as a substitute in his first two matches then bringing him on for the full ninety minutes in his next three.
Not every player is up for rebuilding a club that has had the level of success like D.C. has. But, to his credit, Rooney seems to want the challenge. Just four games into his tenure he was named captain of the squad.
“I know it’s been a tough few years for the club, but the club is moving in the right direction,” he said. “The league has gotten better and the I think the club realized that and have to improve if we want to be successful again, and I believe that is what the club is trying to do.”