Former Manchester United and Everton hero Wayne Rooney’s MLS bow produced an assist, several neat passes and some stellar copywriting. Could this actually go well?
He was never going to replicate Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s breathtaking debut in US football, but Wayne Rooney started his D.C. United career with an important win.
Coming on in the 58th minute, the former England striker was given a warm welcome at the new Audi Field stadium, helping his side to a first victory since May.
And while Rooney’s performance was more composed than it was dramatic, the game provided some talking points.
One of the best/worst things about Rooney’s move to MLS is its potential to inspire some mild idolatry of the clearly past-his-prime forward.
In a press conference a fortnight ago, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser duly delivered some: “Now, when you are Mayor of Washington D.C., Wayne, one thing that I do is I make proclamations. And so today I will proclaim this day in Washington D.C. ‘Wayne Rooney Day’.”
Bowser added that Rooney and his family would feel at home in D.C., in part thanks to the city’s “restaurants that offer classic British fare: mashed fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. You name it, we have it”.
Rooney himself was more focused on the football.
“I am looking forward to it,” he said. “A new challenge, a new culture, a new league to play in and new team-mates. I’m excited for the first game — I can’t wait to get started.”
If those comments didn’t get the Audi Field crowd in the mood, then Saturday’s match-day programme certainly did.
Rooney was given a comprehensive technical profile in the publication, in which the club’s resident author praised the forward’s “powerful right leg that enables him to finish both inside and outside of the penalty area”.
When power isn’t required, the author explains, Rooney has another trick up his sleeve: “As a change of pace to unleashing his heavy shot, Rooney has also been known to deceive goalkeepers by finessing shots across the goal line.”
Hilariously baffling line in the DC United programme introducing Wayne Rooney: “Rooney has also been known to deceive goalkeepers by finessing shots across the goal line.” pic.twitter.com/p8DcOUjHou
— Kiran Moodley (@kirancmoodley) July 15, 2018
With D.C. enjoying 33°C heat on Saturday, coach Ben Olsen thought it best to use a still-acclimatising Rooney from the bench.
His side, bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference, were facing the (Western) Vancouver Whitecaps in one of the league’s 11 East-West matches.
Gonna go watch Wayne Rooney sweat and yell at people in a new racoon-free stadium today.
— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) July 14, 2018
For 58 minutes, the crowd waited, giving huge cheers every time Rooney warmed up, even chanting “We want Rooney” as their side took a 1-0 lead into the second half.
When the new No.9 took the place of Darren Mattocks, he looked, dare we say it, not unfit. He was more tanned than pink; this United’s black kit more kind to his complexion than the red of his previous United.
Less than a minute after coming on, Rooney was given a chance for instant glory: a free kick in Vancouver’s half, some 30 yards from goal.
Hands on hips, 45 degrees from the ball, everything looked set for another Fenerbahçe moment.
The shot hit the wall at waist height, of course, but Rooney was in the game now and would only improve.
This might, admittedly, have been a cross. But knowing Rooney as we do, it could definitely have been an attempt to lob goalkeeper Brian Rowe.
After all, his nearest team-mate was still way outside the box as the chip floated goalward. Either way, it didn’t go very well.
If Rooney’s recent years in the Premier League taught us anything, it’s that he will always be capable of doing the spectacular. See last season’s West Ham strike as evidence.
The problem was that he seemed decreasingly capable of performing the simple tasks: keeping pace with the game, controlling the ball and being in the right place at the right time.
In that sense, it’s actually encouraging that Rooney’s debut was marked not with a spectacular long-range goal à la Ibrahimovic, but with a series of neat one-twos around the opposition box.
One of those helped D.C. go 2-0 up.
And yet link-up play will not be Rooney’s primary directive at his new club. His new manager sees him as “a number nine, but…a versatile nine”, and towards the end of the match Rooney got into a striker’s position to almost steal a debut goal.
It wasn’t to be, but a fitter Rooney – and one playing in the cooler autumn weather – should gobble up such chances.
Just two minutes after that header, Rooney dropped deep, playing another simple pass to grab an assist for his side’s third goal.
Goalscorer Paul Arriola did the hard work, but Rooney’s ball was inch-perfect – as were most of his passes on the night, with 31 of 34 finding a team-mate.
Not so neat. Not so useful.
Still, if 2018 Rooney only wants to try this kind of thing while 3-0 up in the 87th minute, D.C. can have no cause for complaint.
After the match, Rooney’s manager and team-mates praised their new striker.
“He is a high quality, elite soccer player,” said manager Olsen. “It looked like the game was a bit slow for him, and I don’t think he lost the ball once.”
Man-of-the-match Arriola added that the club “did a good job of finding someone like Rooney who is very humble and team-oriented”.
Of their 19 remaining fixtures of the season, D.C. United will play just five away from home, meaning Rooney and the team will be well-placed to build on Saturday’s victory.
With any luck, their new stadium and new talisman will take them from the foot of the table, perhaps even to the playoffs.