Just seven weeks after one of the most famous players in the world signed with Major League Soccer, one of the most famous players in the world is signing with Major League Soccer.
On March 23, the LA Galaxy signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his outsized résumé and personality. On Thursday, the BBC and Sky Sports reported that Wayne Rooney has “agreed in principle” to join D.C. United, though the Washington Post writes that the deal is still “50-50.”
Should it happen, it will be another major name drawn to MLS. Yet whereas landing Zlatan was universally considered a coup for the league, luring Rooney will be viewed much more skeptically. As well it should.
Because there are plenty of reasons why signing Rooney might be a bad idea. For D.C. United or any other MLS team.
You might argue that, materially, the Zlatan and Rooney signings aren’t so different. Ibrahimovic had scored 17 Premier League goals for Manchester United in the 2016-17 season, but had barely featured this season after returning from a major injury. Rooney scored 10 goals for Everton during the past season, which was a rocky one for the club. That was more than in either of his last two seasons in his glorious run with Manchester United. And Rooney, 32, is four years – and three weeks, to the day – younger than Zlatan.
Yet Rooney makes a great deal less sense for MLS. He might well be effective. Last-place United badly needs a striker, freeing England’s all-time leading scorer up from the pretense that he’s still a hybrid attacking midfielder-forward. He could get chances. And he could get goals. Just as Zlatan has, scoring two in a fevered two-goal substitute debut, whereupon his form has inevitably cooled off some.
But that isn’t entirely the point.
There are plenty of strikers out there. Younger strikers. Better strikers, quite possibly. And they’re likely to cost less than the $16-17 million – depending on the report – Rooney will.
In MLS, D.C. United pioneered the scouting and acquisition of high-upside but largely unknown South American talent, rather than signing famous Europeans, and rode that strategy to three championships in the league’s first four years. Now that this has become a common approach throughout the league, D.C. seems to be going in the other, rather outmoded direction.
Its long-suffering fans will be pleased for the once-moribund franchise to be showing any kind of ambition. The club spent a decade seemingly more worried about curtailing financial losses at its crumbling RFK Stadium than winning games. But with its own Audi Field about to open, more spending had been promised. And Rooney is, if nothing else, an expenditure.
A splashy name for a new stadium in a crowded sports market makes sense on its face. But D.C. United already has an established brand in Washington. And Rooney isn’t likely to pull in fans once the initial buzz has died down. Which is exactly where he’s different from Ibrahimovic. The latter’s enormous charisma and deft handling of the varied media opportunities his persona offers him and his club, give him long-term value off the field.
Rooney, for his towering accomplishments on the field, where he might well be England’s best player ever – even though expectations were set so high for him at 16 that, to a few, he somehow never quite delivered on them – is quiet away from the field. Interviews, to him, seem more necessary nuisance than an opportunity to shine and put his club in the spotlight. Which isn’t to say he isn’t a consummate professional, just that he doesn’t bring Zlatan’s flair, as indeed very few others do.
What’s more, Rooney is in steep decline. Like many forwards who played significant senior team minutes as teens, his skills began eroding in his late 20s. Consensus makes the 2009-10 season his best. And Rooney last made the Premier League Team of the Year in 2011-12. His value has withered just as quickly as his once precocious work-rate has. Zlatan, for that matter, was still dominant in his last fully healthy season and scored 113 league goals for Paris Saint-Germain in just four years in his early 30s.
There’s an argument to be made that Rooney’s age is the same as Thierry Henry, David Villa, David Beckham, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Robbie Keane were when they arrived stateside, and they were all very successful here. Yet all those men were much closer to the peak of their powers than Rooney now is. Rooney is a shell of his former self on most days. Only Schweinsteiger’s fall-off at Manchester United is comparable, before he bounced back nicely with the Chicago Fire.
I'm good with this.
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 10, 2018
D.C. United could hardly have signed a more famous player to open its stadium with, banking on whatever hype the club feels he will bring, in the hopes that it will inflate attendance. But it could surely have spent its money better in a soccer sense.
And while it isn’t the direct concern of the teams, the retirement league image is nevertheless something they control. League headquarters are tasked with cultivating Major League Soccer’s image, but it ultimately boils down to the players the teams sign. D.C. wouldn’t do the league any favors by bringing on done the league any favors. The recent ledger of famous but aging Designated Player signings is decidedly mixed. And while Zlatan may have been a worthwhile exception, Rooney likely isn’t.
He won’t come here at his best. And in the long run, he won’t move the needle much, if at all, at the box office or in the press. It’s hard to see how D.C. United gets any kind of reasonable return on this significant investment.
If it does indeed happen. Which it probably shouldn’t.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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