Wayne Rooney's brief stay in MLS lived up to the billing for D.C United, and it's not over yet

Wayne Rooney (right), who was introduced as a Derby County player-assistant coach under manager Phillip Cocu (left) on Tuesday, will finish the MLS season with D.C. United before joining the English second-tier club in January. (Reuters/Carl Recine)
Wayne Rooney (right), who was introduced as a Derby County player-assistant coach under manager Phillip Cocu (left) on Tuesday, will finish the MLS season with D.C. United before joining the English second-tier club in January. (Reuters/Carl Recine)

So it’s official. Wayne Rooney is leaving MLS at the end of 2019 after one and a half seasons to return to his native England, where the 33 year old will become a player-assistant coach with second-tier Derby Country.

The news came down on Tuesday morning, just over 24 hours after reports that a split was in the works began bubbling to the surface. But while the timing of the move may have come as a surprise — Manchester United’s all-time top scorer was still under contract with DCU for at least another year — it really shouldn’t be a shock.

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When word that Rooney was headed to MLS surfaced last year, the response was mixed. There was little doubt the former England national team captain could still play. The bigger question was how he’d settle in off the field. Rooney had spent his entire professional career with two clubs, Manchester United and his boyhood team Everton, separated by only 50 miles. Unlike his former club and international teammate David Beckham, a London native who spent parts of six seasons with the LA Galaxy after three years with Real Madrid, Rooney had never lived more than a short drive away from most of his family and friends.

There was so much to adjust to in D.C. for Rooney. From a soccer standpoint, he’d be playing alongside less-talented teammates, dealing with uneven refereeing and sitting in coach on cross-continent flights to get to games. Off the field, there was oppressive summer heart, driving on the opposite side of the road, and the five-hour time difference.

Would a man with a famously short temper be able to deal with all of those changes at once? As it turned out, not only did Rooney take the differences in stride, he thrived in his new environment, quickly establishing himself as model teammate and almost single-footedly transforming D.C. United from also-ran to playoff participant before the season was over.

There were a few dustups along the way, of course. He was arrested for public intoxication at Dulles airport. He received a red card in a marquee April match against league-leading LAFC. But overall he was better than anyone could’ve reasonably hoped, leading his young team by example and scoring 23 goals in 43 league matches. Many of his strikes, like this one against Orlando City in June, were downright spectacular:

And by all accounts, Rooney was happy in the nation’s capital and had every intention of honoring the agreement he signed by staying until it was up. But the Washington Post reported that his wife, Colleen, didn’t settle in as well as her husband and wanted to return to England to raise the couple’s four young sons closer to home.

“While the decision to move home was a tough one, family is everything to us,” Rooney said in a statement. “We make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England.”

And just like that, just 13 months after Rooney’s debut at Audi Field, D.C. United and its fans are now counting the days until his departure.

It’s a blow to the club, to be sure. With Luciano Acosta also widely expected to leave at the end of the season after a January deal with Paris Saint Germain fell through, manager Ben Olsen’s team faces the prospect of having to retool the top part of its roster heading into its 25th season. Indeed, that work has already begun, with former Galaxy and Columbus Crew striker Ola Kamara expected to join the squad this week.

Wayne Rooney has scored 23 goals in 43 MLS games so far. (USA Today/Aaron Doster)
Wayne Rooney has scored 23 goals in 43 MLS games so far. (USA Today/Aaron Doster)

Fans can be mad at Rooney, but that doesn’t make sense. He didn’t hold out for a move to Los Angeles or New York, instead embracing the the challenge of returning D.C. United — which won four of the first nine MLS Cups — to its former glory. He made the Black and Red relevant again just by signing on, then delivered consistently on and off the field.

And before he goes, he’ll have a chance to cement his legacy in Washington as a champion. D.C. sits in the middle of the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference, and MLS history is littered with teams that rode a hot streak (or a hot player) all the way to the title. Besides, the league’s new slimmed-down postseason format means that the next MLS champion will have to win just four single-elimination games to take the trophy.

Anyone who’s followed Rooney’s journey should now know not to doubt him. But his brief stay in MLS should be considered a success, storybook ending or not.

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