Did D.C. have enough mettle to leap above the playoff line? Could Christian Benteke, scoreless in his last 11 across all competitions, get back on track? Would midseason signing Gabriel Pirani become the Lewis O’Brien replacement they needed after the latter's loan from Nottingham Forest ended in July? And, perhaps less immediately pressing but still important, will Wayne Rooney – who is out of contract at season's end – be back to coach next year?
With a resounding 4-0 win that saw the Black-and-Red vault the Fire and land on the right side of the playoff line, the club answered some of those questions Saturday night.
“It was the result we needed. We put a lot of work in over the last couple of weeks really on getting the attacking players in better areas,” said Rooney, whose side had scored just twice in the six matches prior to their Audi Field win.
Benteke back on track
The main beneficiary of all that training-ground work appeared to be Benteke, who notched two goals and an assist in a “man of the match”-worthy performance. The breakout night ended a brutal dry spell for the Belgian international and ex-Premier League star who signed with D.C. in August 2022.
“Of course when you're a striker and you're not scoring, your confidence is down a little bit,” said Rooney, who, as the Premier League’s third all-time leading scorer, would know a thing or two about a striker’s mentality.
“And towards the top he took his first goal excellent. A great bit of skill, great finish. And then that normally happens, you score one and you get another one. I think the big thing is you put yourself in the right positions, in better positions, and if he does that, he'll score goals."
As Benteke has gone this season, so too have D.C. But the 2023 MLS All-Star echoed his manager's thoughts on doing the little things right to get back on track.
“It's been at times frustrating because as a striker, it doesn't matter how good you do. If you help your teammate, at the end of the day, you think also about yourself. And when you don't score a few games, it can be frustrating,” said Benteke. “But I was just thinking about doing the right thing. I think if you do the right thing, it leads to goals.”
Young midfield duo emerges
Rooney and Benteke also offered praise to a pair of young attacking talents: Pirani and D.C. homegrown Theodore Ku-DiPietro, who both featured prominently in the club’s new 4-2-3-1 look and helped open up the game, with the latter scoring the team's second goal in the 20th minute.
“I think [Pirani]'s been excellent," said Rooney. "I think he's a player who is a lot stronger than you think for his size. He's a very clever player, and I think it's exciting with him and Ku[-DiPietro]. I think Ted is one of the best younger American players.”
Added Benteke: “I think with Pirani now and Ku as well coming in, it helps a lot. It brings different aspects in our game, and I think now we enjoy more and we look, I think, more dangerous.”
With Benteke finding his scoring form and DiPietro accompanying Pirani to boost the team’s attacking presence from midfield, D.C. seem to have unlocked a guiding formula for their final seven-game push as they look to secure a postseason spot. Up next in the end-of-season sprint is a home match next Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), who find themselves in an equally tough scrap to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Through it all, the specter of Rooney’s unsettled contract situation looms. The second-year head coach has said he reached out to club executives two months ago about a new deal, but hasn’t heard back. Regardless, he remains focused first and foremost on making the playoffs.
“Comfortable. Comfortable with the situation,” said Rooney. “So all I can do is do my job and keep trying to win games. And my focus is the players.”