Capital Rooney

Wayne Rooney is back in Washington D.C. After a two year break, the Manchester United and England legend has made his return to the American capital, this time as the manager of his old side D.C. United.

On the surface, it is not hard to get excited about Rooney coming back to the Nation’s Capital. After all, it is Wayne Rooney! Manchester United and England superstar, a guy who in just under two years sparked United back into the playoffs with some dazzling goals and last minute heroics! It is also the same Wayne Rooney who just led Derby County, a side that almost staved off relegation in the English League Championship despite being docket points for going into administration.

Everything seems to line up perfectly for all parties involved. United get a coach who knows most of the players, has a brief but solid track record for coaching, and gives them a big market bullet point to sell to supporters who might normally take the season off given the club’s struggles. Rooney gets the chance to continue to build his coaching C/V for possibly other positions down the road. He wouldn’t be the first coach to do this- Patrick Viera (Crystal Palace/New York City FC), Jesse Marsch (Leeds United/New York Red Bulls), and Ronny Delia (Standard Liege/New York City FC) have all come to MLS, had success, and moved on to bigger clubs abroad.

So Rooney’s back and hey Washington D.C. got the MLS All-Star Game! Time to get out the drums, the smoke bombs, and bring back all of the memories from those great MLS Cup runs right? We’re back!!!

Let’s put the brakes on the victory train here for a minute.

While in the short-term the deal seems to benefit both parties, in the long-term the same questions remain. Adding Rooney provides a certain level of panache to a club that desperately needs some shine, but it doesn’t resolve the big questions around spending and strategy that this club has now struggled with for decades.

Perhaps what’s most bothersome about this signing is that it doesn’t give the fans credit. Although it is par for the course in Washington D.C. for sports teams to make short-term splashy moves to hide long-term problems (the Washington Wizards signing Bradley Beal for $250 million dollars, the Washington Capitals taking close to a decade to properly build around Alex Ovechkin and pretty much every move the Washington Commanders have made in the last 30 years are just a few of the many, many examples that one can list), let’s be clear: it is a poor strategy.

Sports fans, and in particular soccer fans, in the Washington D.C. Metro area are very knowledgeable and can sniff out bad teams making hasty decisions to gin up ticket sales. It is an area of transplants, people from not just across the country but from across the world. They are certainly interested in the local teams, but if the local teams stink they are more than happy to support other sides. There is a reason why the area is almost at the top of the viewership rankings for the English Premier League, why college and semi professional sides pull in hundreds of supporters on a weekend night, and why the region annually pulls in top honors for youth soccer competitions. If D.C. United cannot pull in a quality elsewhere no problem. There are plenty of other options.

This isn’t even the first time United have pulled this move. Remember the opening of Audi Field when the team was going to be flush with cash and retake the region? Since 2017, when the club moved supposedly greener pastures, United have made the MLS Cup playoffs just once and have never made the US Open Cup Final.

While Kevin Paredes and Griffin Yow’s moves to VFL Wolfsburg and Westerlo have brought some spotlight to their youth academy, the club has struggled to develop and sell players to European suitors. Meanwhile their development club, Loudoun United, is currently sitting at the bottom of the USL Championship (the second division of U.S. Soccer) for a fourth consecutive season. United have recently shown some success with the Paredes and Yow transfers along with their U16 team winning the MLS Next Cup.

While there are some glimmers of hope, United’s track record throughout the years for developing players and signing them has been spotty at best. Those who have watched Ben Bender tear it up for Charlotte FC this season would be surprised to know that he grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and was never recruited by United. The same could be said for Gabe Segal, who played at the Bethesda SC academy and signed with FC Koln this summer.

When it comes to United’s problems they have never just been about the problems. Yet, United management’s sole focus seems to be on just wins and losses, not about the other items that make sides like FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, New York City FC, and the Portland Timbers successful. There doesn’t seem to be an actual plan for their youth academy, what their goals are for their youth players, and how success is measured. Players may be developing at D.C. United but they are leaving the club and making other clubs better. That coupled with a lack of a footprint in soccer hotbeds like Montgomery County, Baltimore, Southern Virginia, and Southern Maryland/Eastern Shore makes the club a pariah in youth soccer and in the pocketbooks of parents looking to go out to a game on a Saturday night.

The other bigger question that has yet to be answered is: What measurements of success are being used to determine Dave Kasper, the club’s President of Operations and Soccer Director, future? Kasper has been in the club’s front office since 2001, first as their General Manager then taking on his current position in 2021. During this time the club has had eight head coaches and only won five titles (two MLS Cups, two Supporter Shields, and a U.S. Open Cup). Soccer at times, can be a bit quick in showing club management the door. But United’s lack of success particularly in the last decade has to at some point make his position tenuous. The lack of success in scouting, signing new players, expanding the brand and improving their footprint in a soccer mad region are destroying this club. At a certain point, it is not just the coaches’ fault; there has to be accountability within the front office.

While Rooney may solve some of the club’s woes in the interim, D.C. United are still very much a rebuilding project. Rooney has shown an ability as a coach to get the most out of a side with little to no financial resources. But MLS is a different sort of beast-the lack of promotion and relegation in American soccer means inevitably games between teams at the bottom lack some stakes. At a certain point the shine and luster of Rooney coming in will wear off. So what does United do next? That level of organization and strategy is where the club time and time again has struggled. Despite saying all the right things, the United Management have consistently shown an unwillingness to splash the cash that sides like LAFC, Seattle, and Atlanta have made a part of the new era of MLS. Rooney can only change so much; it is up to the United front office to do the rest and suffer the consequences for failure.

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