Phil Neville: Wayne Rooney will have "great advantage" as DC United head coach

All signs point to Wayne Rooney being formally announced Tuesday as D.C. United’s next head coach, and the former Black-and-Red striker has already got a ringing endorsement from his fellow countryman.

"The boy's got that hunger"

Addressing the widespread reports at Monday’s training session, Inter Miami CF head coach Phil Neville said his former England and Manchester United teammate is poised to tackle the MLS project head-on.

Rooney, 36, most recently led Derby County in the English Championship before a 21-point deduction (due to the club entering administration amid financial woes) created a massive uphill climb and eventual relegation to League One for the 2022-23 campaign. He then left the Rams in late June.

“He comes as one of the most iconic figures in English football, the most successful scorer in England and Manchester United's history. So that brings a level of expectation,” said Neville. “Everything that Wayne does brings a level of expectation but ever since I was introduced to him and we became teammates, the boy has got that touch where he succeeds.

“The boy's got that hunger and desire to do everything it takes to be successful and I think in his managerial career so far, he was thrown really in the deep end at Derby where they had no money and they had takeover problems and they had a points deduction," added Neville, with Derby serving as Rooney's first coaching job. "He nearly performed a miracle, so in a way this job might be slightly easier because of the conditions. There is no relegation in this league like there is in England.”

Rooney:Neville Everton Man U
Phil Neville (left) and Wayne Rooney (right) meet in an Everton vs. Manchester United game in April 2011. (Lee Smith/Action Images)

"That gives him a great advantage"

Rooney is poised to take over for interim manager Chad Ashton, who’s been in a caretaker role since mid-April after Hernan Losada was dismissed. The Argentine lasted just over a year at the helm, leaving D.C. United still in a transition phase after Ben Olsen’s coaching departure in 2020 ended a decade-long shift from the club legend.

It’s a big task facing Rooney, too, with D.C. United sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference standings and looking to snap a two-year streak of missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The last time the MLS originals made the postseason, in fact, was 2018-19, when Rooney was their attacking centerpiece after leaving behind his Everton and Manchester United playing days.

That background leaves Rooney poised to succeed, in Neville’s view, as he’s already familiar with MLS’s intricacies – ranging from the salary-cap structure and roster-building mechanisms to the uniqueness of a 28-club league spanning the United States and Canada.

“When I came to MLS, I suppose that Wayne's slightly got an advantage because he's played in MLS, he's got experience in MLS,” said the 45-year-old Neville, who previously led the England women’s national team before coming to Inter Miami in 2021. As a defender, he solely played in the Premier League.

“He's been on the road trips, he's obviously played with some of these players he'll be playing against," Neville continued. "He's been to stadiums, he's been in the environments and the climates. So he's not coming here as someone that's never been involved in the league. He knows what the league's all about, so I think that gives him a great advantage.”

Rooney Neville England training
Wayne Rooney (left) and Phil Neville (right) train with England before an October 2006 match vs. Croatia. (Michael Regan/Action Images)

Next step

Rooney would be the latest example of a young, high-profile coach cutting their teeth in MLS, following what those like now-Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira (ex-NYCFC) and now-Belgium assistant Thierry Henry (ex-CF Montréal) have done when arriving from Europe. He’d also become the youngest coach in MLS behind NYCFC interim boss Nick Cushing, and the fifth Englishman alongside Cushing, Neville, Gary Smith (Nashville SC) and Adrian Heath (Minnesota United FC).

Like those before him, Neville said Rooney will have plenty to prove as his post-playing career continues to evolve.

“This is the next step for him and what I would say to any coach anywhere in the world, but particularly in the EPL and England, is that MLS is a brilliant, brilliant league to manage in,” Neville said. “It's the most difficult league in the world to win, to be successful in.

“You just have to get used to the rain delays and the lightning,” he added, joking about the weather in South Florida.

An extra layer to it all? D.C. United will host Inter Miami on Sept. 18 as the 2022 MLS regular season winds down; they already played on May 14 and settled for a 2-2 draw.