Everton boss Frank Lampard says Wayne Rooney's U.S. coaching move 'shows personality'

·8 min read

WASHINGTON — Why wouldn’t Wayne Rooney want to coach Major League Soccer?

No, seriously.

There was no shortage of questions and criticisms during the whirlwind 24 hours between first rumors of Rooney's return to D.C. United — the club he briefly pulled from the drudgery of irrelevance — and his announcement as head coach Tuesday.

The echo chambers of "Why?!" felt familiar, and frustrating.

"I’ve seen a few articles, certainly back in England, on this as possibly a backwards step in my managerial career. I really find that disrespectful to this league,” Rooney said during his introductory press conference. “To come back to the MLS — to D.C. United — was an exciting challenge for me.”

The England men’s national team all-time leading goal scorer faced similar scrutiny when he made the move from Everton to D.C. United as a player in 2018.

With half a season left, he pulled D.C. from outside the playoff picture into the postseason through his signature work ethic and commitment to the game. Though he showed moments of annoyance any international superstar would in a growing league, Rooney approached American soccer with reverence.

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Wayne Rooney waits to speak during a news conference to announce him as the new head coach of MLS soccer club D.C. United, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Wayne Rooney waits to speak during a news conference to announce him as the new head coach of MLS soccer club D.C. United, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Frank Lampard, a Chelsea legend and now manager of Everton, knows all too well the difficult transition from player to coach under the spotlight of British media. Coincidently in Washington, D.C. as part of his team's United States preseason tour, Lampard admired his former England teammate's return.

“I think it shows confidence,” Lampard told USA TODAY Sports+. “I think it shows personality to go against the grain.

"It shows that he wants to be a great coach because he wants to test himself in different environments.”

Rooney, 36, and Lampard, 44, both started their managerial careers young and at English Football League Championship team Derby County. While Lampard took the team to a promotion playoff in 2019, Rooney inherited a much different squad a year later.

The club went through ownership troubles, a massive points deduction due to financial issues and eventually relegation to the third tier of English football. Rooney kept the team competitive — all things considered — but 18 months after taking charge, he left.

Why not test the waters abroad?

MLS comes with a unique set of challenges. While Rooney experienced some as a player (varying climates, long-distance travel and a more physical style of play than the technical features of the European game), other challenges are unique to coaching.

“It’s different off the field. How you bring in players and the salary cap is completely different, so it’s a new thing you learn in terms of your development as a coach,” Rooney said. “It’s a good time for me to come here and challenge myself.”

Lampard, who played a year in MLS for New York City FC before retiring in 2016, agreed the move will help Rooney's coaching career.

“There are challenges of many sorts that will make him a better manager, and not everyone would have taken it on,” Lampard said. “He could have sat at home for six months. He’d have waited and might have got a job in a month later.”

Rooney told reporters in January he was approached about the Everton position Lampard filled. Earlier this week, he said multiple European clubs reached out about managerial roles after he left Derby County.

But he chose D.C.

Though he said he's confident he can make it as a Premier League manager, he is committed to MLS and an agreement that keeps him in the nation's capital through 2024, according to the Washington Post.

D.C. United started investing in Rooney’s coaching future while he was a player on their roster. It's an investment the team hopes pays off.

“Wayne's prerequisite to come in here as a player was that we enable him ample time to to get his (coaching) licenses while he's playing, so we had the FA coming here. He was running sessions with our academy kids," said Dave Kasper, D.C. United president of soccer operations. "The guy wants to be a coach. He's got a conviction for it and we sort of knew that when he was here. He was always an extension of the coaching staff.”

Rooney's arrival lifts more than the struggling MLS team. It also brings excitement back to a city that was snubbed a 2026 World Cup hosting bid last month.

While D.C. United gets a boost from the return of a global name who helped them sell out the early days of Audi Field, Rooney gets some breathing room to sharpen his coaching skills without too many bright lights and prying personal questions. Though, those still exist.

During his introduction, Rooney was asked multiple times about how this move affects his family. He ended his playing contract early in part because his family wanted to go back to England. His wife, Coleen, said in private messages — which became public due to an ongoing trial — she was not happy living away from home.

The first person Rooney spoke to after he got the call about returning to D.C. was Coleen. He said she fully supports his decision, and he wouldn’t have joined otherwise.

“It's one of the tough parts, but I think it's what you sign up for,” Lampard said. "If you want to coach and manage, you can't pick the best club that's really as close to home as possible and live a happy life. You challenge yourself. You go everywhere.”

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Why not try to rekindle the magic?

D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal from beyond midfield against Orlando City SC in the first half at Audi Field.
D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal from beyond midfield against Orlando City SC in the first half at Audi Field.

Fortunately for United, Rooney returns to familiar grounds to test his managerial wings. While his spotlight has perks — Kasper said 10–12 European players called about joining the team the day before Rooney's official announcement — it’s the on-field product where United needs the most help.

Rooney’s introduction came four days after D.C., which is in last place, lost 7-0 to local rival, the Philadelphia Union. They need him now, but he can't start until he receives his work visa in 3-4 weeks. And even then, he's limited to the coach's technical box, no more 40-yard sprints in stoppage time to win games.

The team is ready to give Rooney the time and resources he needs.

Neither Kasper nor owner Jason Levien committed to an expectation of a playoff berth this year from Rooney. (Hernán Losada, Rooney's predecessor, was given a little more than a season before he was let go.) Additionally, Kasper said the team is committed to signing three designated players — those given contracts that exceed the MLS salary cap — for the first time in club history. Rooney signed as a designated player when he first joined the team.

"We want to get those right," Kasper said. "We want to make sure they fit. And now that Wayne's here, he'll be engaged in that process to make sure that they fit the way he was deployed.”

While results-based judgment can’t start until Rooney takes his staple black tracksuit pitch side, there is a clear symbiotic relationship with the club already.

"We know the energy and passion he brought as a player, and we know he’s going to do the same thing as a coach.” United defender Steven Birnbaum said. “The group is extremely excited to see him lift us.”

Rooney, even during his introduction, was quick to express he has no problem asserting authority — and he knows Birnbaum well enough to know he may not always like that.

“I've been here before and become friends with him, there's going to be moments where he’s going to be a bit frustrated because I will be shouting at him and putting him in his place. That’s part of the job," Rooney said. "I know it’s going to be hard work that I have to put in, that the players have to put in. I have demands, principles that players have to stick by."

In the meantime, he benefits from the same privilege he had as a player four years ago — the time and space to try something new.

"Maybe that's part of his thought process and decision making to go and try and work outside of the bubble of home in England, where we think the Premier League and the Championship are the be-all and end-all,” Lampard said. “There's a world out there with different challenges to go and experience them. Why not?”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Frank Lampard lauds Wayne Rooney's coaching move to MLS's DC United