Voices: Andrew Wiebe

What Wayne Rooney will bring as DC United's head coach

What will Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United look like?

The first big hint – with many more to come in the coming days, months, and hopefully, years – arrived via The Washington Post’s Steven Goff early Friday morning.

Let’s unpack those tweets because there’s a lot there.

1.) D.C. not only landed a nearly seven-figure package of allocation money for Gressel (went official Friday afternoon), they also opened a senior roster spot and the cap room budgeted for a TAM contract. Might that be for 29-year-old attacking midfielder Ravel Morrison, who turned his career around with Rooney at Derby County last year? Goff reported earlier this week that Morrison was scheduled to arrive in the nation’s capital this weekend to finalize a TAM deal. A + B = C.

2.) More moves are coming. No surprise there. That was the expectation before Rooney arrived. D.C. have two Designated Player spots open alongside Taxi Fountas. They were reportedly shopping Ola Kamara earlier in the year. Michael Estrada (4g, 4a in 15 games) has started the past three matches but is on loan from Liga MX’s Toluca. Enter Jesse Lingard, who has a relationship with Rooney that goes way back.

3.) The system is changing. Rooney is going back to the 4-2-3-1 that worked so well when he was a player for the club. With left back Brad Smith out for the season with an ACL injury and Gressel departing for Vancouver via a trade, the personnel is shifting to fit the future shape. The Hernan Losada run-hard-press-hard identity was short-lived. Rooney values the ball, and his tactical preferences with this group will become more evident with each game he manages.

4.) I won’t pretend to know much about Jackson Hopkins. The 18-year-old US youth international has played in six league games (two starts, 228 minutes, no goals or assists) in his first MLS season. He’s got another 21 games played for Loudoun United. But Rooney clearly knows him well, and one of his biggest success stories at Derby was the number of academy products who got a shot (out of necessity thanks to transfer bans) and thrived. The new manager isn’t going to be afraid to give the kids a shot.

I thought this mailbag question from Thursday’s Extratime – you can listen and subscribe to the pod HERE – was a good one and sums up what this opportunity means to Rooney and by extension D.C United. Give it a read, then we’ll dive in.

From Dan Murphy…

Wayne Rooney is the latest (and as a D.C. fan, I can only hope greatest) in a series of high-profile former players who come to MLS with the intention of developing themselves as coaches. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Steve Cherundolo would be other recent names that come to mind. The number of MLS coaches with World Cup experience as players has shot up over the years. (Landon Donovan soon?? Looking at you, San Jose.)

What is it about MLS that makes it so appealing as a pathway to managing at the highest levels of the sport?

The steppingstone

Make no mistake, Rooney doesn’t see MLS as the final destination, nor should he.

He believes, with good reason, that he can manage in the English Premier League, but is humble enough to understand he has work to do to gain the level of experience he needs to manage at the sort of clubs (read, the very biggest) that match his ambition. A few years in MLS give him that, without the celebrity or sporting drama that’s followed him around back home.

D.C. is a valuable steppingstone along what’s likely to be a career at the very highest level for Rooney. Meanwhile, Rooney serves as a high-profile and trusted Sherpa for D.C., a figure to personify renewed ambition and lead them into a new era (just as he was expected to do as a player) that returns them to the glory days of old.

In MLS, unlike in the UK, Rooney can focus on the one thing he cares about above all: his craft. He will live near the training complex, potentially with one of his assistant coaches and perhaps even players, per D.C. co-chairman and CEO Jason Levien.

“He is all in on developing himself as a manager and growing,” Levien said.

Derby crossover

From all reports, Rooney did plenty of that at Derby, where he had considerably more to deal with off the field. Between financial issues, point deductions and the threat of and eventual relegation to League One, the club was awash with existential distractions. Rooney’s options in the transfer market were severely limited, but he made the best of it. He turned to the academy. He reportedly paid players out of his own pocket. He created an unlikely pocket of belief that nearly staved off relegation.

D.C. United might not be awash in success right now, but they represent a relatively blank slate for Rooney, both as a professional and personally. Distractions? What distractions? He’s walking into the eye of the storm he’s been living in for most of his life.

Rooney’s relationship with ownership is clearly stellar. He knows the veterans in the squad as well as anyone from his not-so-distant time as their peer, playing in D.C. from 2018-19. There is trust all around, something missing as the culture deteriorated under his predecessor, Hernan Losada. He has two DP spots to work with, and while old running mate Luciano Acosta is gone doing MVP things elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Fountas has proven to be a game-changer immediately.

Unlike many foreign managers, Rooney knows MLS intimately, and he knows crazy things can happen in this league. Unlike at Derby or in the EPL with Everton, for example, there is a relatively even playing field in our league. Sure, there are spending discrepancies, but every team is built under the same rules and with the same salary cap. No matter who D.C. play week-to-week, there’s reason to believe they can win. Make some big summer signings, put together pragmatic game plans and build cohesion and belief, and you’ll rise up the table.

Last place in the East (18 points from 18 games) and an eight-point gap between D.C. United and the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs? That’s nothing. Remember, Rooney led a furious march from last place to the postseason in 2018, when he arrived in MLS as a player. Why can’t D.C. do it again? Eight points is nothing when you consider Rooney and his rag-tag squad nearly made up a 21-point DEDUCTION at Derby. If you think he doesn’t relish that challenge, you haven’t been paying attention to his career for the past two decades.

What if D.C. United sign Jesse Lingard? And if not him, whichever young, hungry players are filling Rooney’s WhatsApp messages? What if their academy, already cranking out first-team quality players, gets supercharged under Rooney? What if the current player pool makes big leaps with a manager who wants to understand them deeply and works doggedly toward a culture in which they’ll thrive?

Those “what ifs” are what D.C. United are betting on in signing Rooney to be their newest manager. Meanwhile, Rooney is betting on himself. Who would bet against him?