Wayne Rooney was always pretty clear about what he wanted to achieve in Major League Soccer. From the moment England and Manchester United’s record goalscorer signed with DC United last summer he spoke about winning. About leaving his mark on a club lacking direction at the time of his arrival. He didn’t waste much time in making good on his word.
DC United were revolutionised by Rooney. Maybe only David Beckham and Sebastian Giovinco can claim to have made as profound an impact on an MLS franchise, but what was most remarkable about Rooney’s arrival was how quickly he changed the entire culture around Audi Field. They went from rock bottom of the Eastern Conference to playoff contenders in the space of just a few weeks.
Of course, the opening of DC United’s new stadium after years in a crumbling venue – where players had to dodge falling rubble and feral cats – played a large part in the overhaul. But with the signing of Rooney and the move to Audi Field the club made a huge leap forward.
The curtain may already be coming down on on that new era, though, with Rooney’s decision to join Derby County as a player-coach at the end of the current MLS season announced on Tuesday. The forward’s move to DC United last year was surprising in the first instance and materialised within the space of just a few days. His exit has panned out in a similar way.
Rooney insists he remains committed to finishing the MLS season strongly. Derby surely would have preferred him to join immediately, but club owner Mel Morris approved the 33-year-old’s request to stay at DC United until December. He could still end the year with silverware such is the nature of the MLS playoffs. There is precedent for this – the LA Galaxy rallied after Beckham’s decision to leave was announced before the end of the 2012 season. The midfielder had a ticker-tape when the Galaxy won MLS Cup in his final game. Rooney’s career in North America could still end in a similar way.
However he ends his time in the US, Rooney’s return to England isn’t a good look for DC United, and by extension MLS. After all, Derby County aren’t exactly Manchester United, and he has not been lured to Pride Park as manager, but to work under Philipp Cocu, a man he has no previous relationship with, as a coach. Rooney has often spoken about his desire to move into coaching, but is Derby’s offer really so irresistible? As arguably the greatest English player of his generation, job offers surely wouldn’t have been in short supply. And if it’s the playing side that is most attractive to Rooney he almost certainly could have found a Premier League club over a team in the Championship.
It also raises a point that seemed to have been left behind in the last phase of MLS’s development as a league and a destination for top class players – will European superstars ever be content enough in North America to ignore the call back home? See how Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard and others have, at one point or another, put their MLS ambitions on hold for one last European nostalgia trip.
Admittedly, this feels somewhat different. DC United co-owner Jason Levien has been candid in confirming Rooney’s reasons for returning to England, citing the forward’s desire to be closer to his family. This is after all a man who, as Levien mentioned in an interview with ESPN FC, had “never lived outside of a 30-40-mile radius his entire life until he came to Washington.” It’s for that reason that Rooney has seemingly been allowed to leave without a transfer fee even being received.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Rooney will leave DC United and MLS having ultimately failed to deliver on his original promise. The club have already started planning for a future without him, with Felipe Martins swiftly traded from the Vancouver Whitecaps within hours of Rooney’s announcement and former Columbus Crew forward Ola Kamara also believed to be a target. There has also been chatter of a move for Mesut Özil. None of these signings, not even Özil, would offer what Rooney brought.
What happens after Rooney’s return to England at the end of the year will be the real mark of his time with DC United. So much of what has been achieved at Audi Field over the past year has been down to Rooney, and his exit will surely cause some structural wobble. This is especially galling for a club that had only just started to find itself and will have to do so again after the unexpected exit of the most significant player in their recent history.