WASHINGTON – He left D.C. United in 2019 “with a lot of pain,” in his own words, and today he’s starring for FC Cincinnati, the Eastern Conference counterpart currently eight places and 21 points ahead of the Black-and-Red in the standings. But Luciano Acosta will always be linked with the District of Columbia.

Es una ciudad que siempre estuvo en mi corazon,” Acosta told MLSsoccer.com after he and the rest of the 2023 MLS All-Stars trained at American University Monday morning ahead of Wednesday’s matchup with Arsenal FC at Audi Field (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

This is a city that has always been in my heart.

Luciano Acosta, Wayne Rooney - DC United - Hugging

Back where it started

For starters, there’s the name boldly tattooed on his neck, front and center for all the world to see: Valentina, the daughter he and his wife Carolina welcomed into the world while Lucho was starring for United from 2016-19. She and the rest of Acosta’s clan have joined him on this return to the U.S. capital this week.

“I’m really happy to be back here,” said the Argentine playmaker. “My daughter was born here, so we brought the whole family back.”

Both on the field and off, Acosta’s time in D.C. was a roller coaster. It spanned United’s long-awaited – and very challenging – move from ancient RFK Stadium to Audi Field, as well as the sensational arrival and subsequent early departure of Wayne Rooney, the global icon with whom he struck up a vibrant attacking partnership, charming supporters and making the Black-and-Red one of MLS’s most entertaining teams.

Those who witnessed their most spectacular moment together, the iconic play they made to conjure up an incredible comeback win over Orlando City SC on Aug. 12, 2018, are unlikely to ever forget it. And yes, Acosta still calls him by that same memorable moniker: Señor Wayne. This week also marks a reunion with Rooney, who now coaches D.C. and will oversee Acosta and the rest of the All-Stars.

"He's always been a leader"

“He's had some challenges, difficult times, but I think he's made a lot of improvement this year, a lot of growth, and it's been good to see the job he's done,” Acosta said of Rooney, who last summer took over a United team bound for a Wooden Spoon and has reshaped them into an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs contender.

“He’s always been a leader, he's been an example for everyone else – when he was a player and now as a coach as well. He leads.”

Rooney had to abruptly end his playing stint at United in 2019 due to his family’s difficulties in settling in the United States. That surely had a hand in Acosta’s decision to depart the club at the same time and move to Liga MX Side Atlas. So did his whirlwind transfer saga with Paris Saint-Germain that January, as the French giants seemed keen to pay a multi-million-dollar fee to acquire Acosta, only for negotiations to fall apart at the 11th hour after he and D.C. GM Dave Kasper had flown to Paris to close the deal.

By year’s end, Acosta was off to Mexico, his relationship with the club frayed beyond repair. But he would build a second chapter in MLS, acquired by Cincinnati in 2021 as one of the cornerstones of their dramatic revival from basement dwellers to leading contenders for this year’s Supporters’ Shield, and perhaps MLS Cup as well.

“It was quite difficult. I think we had some problems getting out,” said Acosta of his D.C. exit. “But the truth is that it's over. I have so many great memories here and I don't think about it too much. I live in the present and I'm happy to be back here.

“I think it's all for the better,” he said of the path that’s taken him to southern Ohio. “This city has done me very well; also Cincinnati, I am very happy there. But [D.C.] is also part of my life. They took me in, they treated me well, and the same thing in Cincinnati. I don't really know how to compare them, because they’re so different. I'm more mature now, I'm a bit older. I have so many great memories from D.C.”

Luciano Acosta dribble

All-Star captain

It’s a triumphant return indeed for Acosta, who will wear the captain’s armband on Wednesday night, a reflection of the respect he’s earned from colleagues, Cincy fans and others across the league, and an honor that carries extra weight for this player, in this city.

“Yes, it’s something very big for my career, to be the captain of the All-Stars with so many great players here,” he said. “I’m very excited to represent my club.

“I lived it last year, and it's magnificent,” Acosta noted of the All-Star experience. “To be together with the stars of the league, you don't really get that anywhere else in the world, you don't really get that in other leagues. To share those meals, these lunches and dinners, and share the training pitch with the best players in the league, it's an incredible thing. … There are so many good players that we don't get to talk to very frequently. So it's great to get a chance to talk with them, to hang out with them and spend that time.”

It’s not just end product that’s gotten the diminutive playmaker to this point. An instinctive showman on the field, always looking to pull off nutmegs, flicks and tricks that few in the league can match, Acosta sounds eager to flash those head-turning skills under Wednesday’s international spotlight.

“Oh yeah, that's why we’re here, because we’ve been putting on a show this season,” he said with a grin. “This is sort of a chance for everyone to put on a little bit more of a show.

“We have fun here. It’s not a job, it’s something to enjoy.”