DC United are set to announce Wayne Rooney as their new manager on Tuesday afternoon, as their former player takes his second managerial job following a challenging stint with Derby County in the English Championship.
As a player, Rooney was one of the finest England has ever produced, as evidenced by the fact he is the all-time top scorer at both Manchester United and the national team. His spell in Major League Soccer was a successful, respectable one, too, something not all the high-profile former England internationals who spent time in the league can say.
As a head coach, the early signs have been positive in the context of a difficult and restrictive situation at Derby. But the situation he’s walking into at DC United is far from easy.
Rooney’s coaching, determination and player management had to come to the fore at Derby as there was little else to work with. Towards the end of 2021, the club was hit with a 12-point deduction for going into administration and a nine-point deduction for breaches of the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules.
There were no transfer funds so players had to be brought on free transfers or loans. Had no points been deducted, Derby would have finished 17th and avoided relegation. Their goal difference of minus-8 was more reflective of a midtable side rather than one which was eventually relegated as a result of those points deductions, all of which is a testament to the work Rooney did.
In many ways, it was ideal preparation for MLS. Like any coaching job in the league the task facing Rooney is all about getting the most from players of varying ability and status. It could be said that this is the case at any club in any league, but MLS is fairly unique and poses distinct challenges when it comes to putting a team together.
Any roster-building on arrival will need to be done within MLS regulations. The league has its own limits on spending, a salary cap, and often restrictive roster rules, but even the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of MLS will feel like a breeze for Rooney compared to his experience at Derby. In his short time as a head coach, he’s already become used to working with what he has under certain constraints.
Rooney’s grounding in MLS was as a Designated Player (DP) at the team he now joins as head coach. DP’s are players whose cost can exceed the Maximum Salary Budget Charge, allowing teams to bring in up to three players on whom they believe it’s worth spending the bigger bucks.
DC United currently has two such slots open on their roster, and their one current DP, Taxiarchis ‘Taxi’ Fountas, is one of the form players in the league. DC is far from an in-form team, though, hence the need for a change in head coach. They are lurking harmlessly at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, with only Chicago Fire below them in MLS. They lost their most recent game, against Philadephia Union, 7-0.
There are some things for Rooney to look forward to, and there are positives, not least in the shape of the talented Greek, Fountas, that offer hope he can turn things around. He has a couple of games in hand to work with as well as those couple of DP’s in hand, so that’s an enjoyable part of the roster rebuild for him to get working on straight away. It immediately gives Rooney a type of freedom he didn’t have at Derby.
And the new head coach himself could be a draw for players who might be considering their next move in this transfer window. Before joining LAFC, Gareth Bale was heavily linked with DC United but in the end, the lure of Los Angeles was too strong. Maybe Rooney’s presence will mean DC holds more sway in the future.
He and the club’s English general manager, Lucy Rushton, can now work on bringing in the right players for his style of play and you would expect at least one of those DP spots to be filled.
We will also learn more about what Rooney’s coaching style actually is. Based on his time at Derby, who despite their troubles had the eighth-highest average possession in the Championship last season with 51%, we could expect DC’s average possession to move up from 46%, and maybe a switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Rooney’s time in DC as a player will also give him a headstart when it comes to winning over the locker room and implementing his ideas. He and the club’s captain since 2017, Steven Birnbaum, are good friends, so the new coach immediately has a link to the players and an ally on the field.
MLS can be a difficult league to navigate, and this move could be seen as a risk for Rooney, but the fact he’s willing to take it is a sign of the determined character fans in DC already know. In familiar surroundings with no points deductions, no threat of relegation, and a little more freedom to build a team in his image, coach Rooney could thrive.