Rooney's arrival provides new tactical flexibility, dynamism for DC United

WASHINGTON – Ever since Wayne Rooney’s arrival at D.C. United, head coach Ben Olsen had maintained that his high-priced new signing would play as close to goal as possible.

When he finally made his debut Saturday night, however, Rooney played further from goal than Darren Mattocks, the man he replaced. And it was exactly what United needed.

Rooney’s 32-minute shift as a “false 9” helped D.C. regain control of the midfield and turn on the afterburners in their 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps at Audi Field on Saturday night. However, both Olsen and Rooney himself warned those tactics were more about the needs of the moment than a broader plan.

“A big part of football is game management,” Rooney explained. “I felt we lost a bit of control, especially in the second half of the game. We dropped really deep. We let them have a bit of possession. It was important when we got the ball that we didn’t turn it over.”

Said Olsen: “In my mind he’s a No. 9, but he’s a versatile No. 9. And he can fill a bunch of different roles. He can drop back and sit in as a No. 10. In certain scenarios he can play the No. 8 for you and still play-make out of that position.”

Where Rooney plays most often is anyone’s guess, perhaps even Olsen’s, as Rooney reaches match fitness and learns more about his teammates.

There will be opponents that make countering with speed a far higher priority, perhaps beginning with United’s trip to Supporters’ Shield leaders Atlanta United on Saturday (3:30 pm ET | Univision, Twitter – Full TV & streaming info).

Olsen will take comfort in knowing Rooney’s two most influential moments Saturday came on one-touch passes, in the buildup to each of Paul Arriola’s second-half goals. Neither was particularly complicated, though each showed a trust in an attacking teammate.

“I think he just made the right play,” Olsen said. “And we talk about that. There’s a huge value in that, of making the right play, in the right moment. He’s just going to make others around him better.”

What seems clear is Rooney is United’s best holdup option for a starting squad full of midfielders small in stature and big on energy. It’s just a question of whether he’s receiving the ball at the penalty arc or the center circle.

“Wayne knows that he doesn’t necessarily have to be the guy going behind and pushing the backline,” Arriola said. “If he needs to, I’ll go high, or Lucho [Acosta] will go high. We’ve talked about it all week. For me, it’s awesome to have that type of play r. Because jeez, I’m all over the place sometimes.”

It may feel that way to Arriola. To D.C.'s new No. 9, false or otherwise, perhaps not so much.

“The speed of play here, when guys come over [from Europe] and the level they’ve been playing at for that long, it’s a touch slow,” Olsen said. “They exploit it with their brains, they exploit it with their quality.”