0910 DC sider

When Wayne Rooney took over as D.C. United head coach in July, he made it a point to highlight his commitment to youth at the club – much like his previous time in charge of England's Derby County FC.

On Saturday night at America First Field, he followed through on that promise by starting 15-year-old homegrown defender Matai Akinmboni in a 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake.

“I think I’m a man of my word,” Rooney grinned after the match. “What I said to the players when I came in was ‘If you perform well in training, you’ll get your chance to play.’ He [Matai] has been excellent in training and he deserved to come in.”

Akinmboni became the third-youngest player in league history to make his MLS debut at 15 years, 328 days, trailing only Freddy Adu (14 years, 334 days) with D.C. United and Alphonso Davies (15 years, 327 days) with Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

And while D.C. are now officially out of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs race, Rooney wants to see his players give their all – both in training and in games. Akinmboni has done just that over the last two weeks since signing with the club on August 31, but also helped his cause with standout performances at the D.C. United academy as well as Loudoun United in the USL Championship, where he made four appearances in his first professional season.

On Saturday, the teenager went up against an RSL side in the thick of the playoff hunt, dealing well with an often-formidable attack. Although that may leave some eager for him to see the field for United's remaining four matches on the season, Rooney is keenly aware he needs to be conscious of the challenges put in front of Akinmboni at such a young age.

“He’s 15 and I have to protect him. But I just felt he was ready to come in and play. Is he going to play every game? Of course not. He’s still a very young boy,” said the former Manchester United and England star, who made his professional debut with Everton at 16. “But for him and for us to see him playing in an away game in difficult circumstances and performing the way he did as a 15-year-old – he’s got a very bright future.

"I got everything I wanted from the 45 minutes that he played tonight that I wanted to see. I’ll keep trying to develop him as a player and hopefully be seeing more of him in this season and for years to come.”

Akinmboni is just the fourth player in MLS history to start a match before his 16th birthday, joining Adu, who made 17 starts before his 16th birthday in 2004 and 2005, Davies (two starts in 2016) and Seattle’s Obed Vargas (one start in 2021).

Against RSL, he played the first 45 minutes at center back and picked up a yellow card before being subbed out at halftime for Tony Alfaro. With club captain Steve Birnbaum suspended and Brendan Hines-Ike out injured, it opened the door for the youngster to start.

The Maryland native also got his first call-up to the United States U-17 national team in August and could debut at that level in upcoming friendlies this year.