“It didn’t bother me if [Thierry] Henry got dropped off by a helicopter, that’s his money,” said Mehdi Ballouchy, an 11-year MLS veteran who ultimately played alongside Henry, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo. “As long they are not a jerk about it, guys really don’t care.”
I don’t just love Ballouchy's quote because it’s fun to hear about the lives of mega-superstars. I love the quote because it encapsulates life playing with a star. When you see the guy show up to training in a chauffeured car or arrive to events in a helicopter, you realize you aren’t playing with just anyone.
Wayne Rooney is joining D.C. United a few months after playing 31 games and scoring 10 goals in the Premier League; he is just a little over one year removed from becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in Manchester United history. One could question the efficiency of Rooney’s signing – price, team need, fit within the D.C. metropolitan marketplace – and they are all valid concerns, but Rooney undoubtedly provides a new level of quality to D.C. United’s roster. Leading scorer … Manchester United … all time.
Despite Rooney’s track record, however, history has made it clear that there’s no such thing as a successful-signing guarantee. It’s not necessarily about age or quality, but rather acclimation to new surroundings. Athletes are people and people need to adjust.
Rooney isn’t joining the D.C. United team solely on paper or in vacuum; he’s entering a locker room that is a living culture and ecosystem. Rooney’s success – and the team’s – will depend on how Rooney acclimates to and impacts the culture.
Rooney needs the team to play his best; the team needs Rooney to reach its maximum potential. And much of the responsibility of meshing the two will fall to D.C. head coach Ben Olsen.
Olsen will have a delicate situation on his hands. Not all teammates are created equal. We’ve all been in a room when a big personality enters. It changes the way everyone else in the vicinity feels. Sometimes it’s for the better – the person lifts the energy in the room. But other times, things get weird. Some people want to look cool to the person, other people resent the attention the single person garners or demands.
Similar dynamics can occur within a locker room: World Cup veterans take up more oxygen than squad-rotation players. It’s up to the head coach to manage the situation.
Olsen hasn’t had a big-name player on his roster since taking over the team in 2010. The closest he’s come would be Jaime Moreno in 2010, Dwayne De Rosario in 2011, Carlos Ruiz in 2013, or Eddie Johnson in 2014. DC United’s major international signings during Olsen’s reign have been Hamdi Salihi, Markus Halsti, Conor Doyle, Lucho Acosta, and Paul Arriola. Needless to say, Olsen is entering a new world with Wayne Rooney.
And the rules can’t be – simply aren’t – the same for everyone in a locker room. For example, when David Beckham played for the Galaxy, Beckham and other veteran players rode in first class while the rest of the team was in coach; when Thierry Henry played for the Red Bulls, he brought his own physiotherapist from Europe. It’s not ideal to have individuals do their own thing – it can create issues within the locker room when someone gets special treatment – but you want to make sure your stars feel comfortable. It’ll be up to Olsen to control the situation, and there isn’t a specific recipe for it.
From a personality standpoint, there might not be a person better than Ben Olsen to deal with the transition. Olsen is as magnetic a person as you will ever meet. He is generally the one who walks into a room and everyone notices. He’s outgoing, charming, witty, and he gives everyone the same respect and banter, regardless of whether it’s a first-year pro or an award-laden veteran. Everyone wants to be friends with Ben. It’s tough to imagine Rooney’s presence would unsettle the Black-and-Red lifer.
The soccer elements, however, get a little trickier. It’s harder to build a soccer team than it is to be friends with someone. Olsen will have two main tasks on his hands now that Rooney joins the team. They are perhaps obvious, but each easier said than done.
Help Rooney adjust to DC United’s playing system and style. It might seem overbearing to wedge the star player into the team’s system, but it’s imperative. It’s a trap to think a superstar should be left uninstructed. As Ballouchy recounts from his own experiences with some of the biggest stars in the league:, “The system should be bigger than any player. If you look around the league, the [Designated Players] that do well play within a good structure: Villa, BWP, Higuain, etc. all know exactly what’s asked of them on and off the ball.” Superstars, like mere mortals, perform best when they and those around them have clear roles.
Olsen would be wise to tweak the system to maximize Rooney’s talents. It’d be silly to ask Rooney to perform the same tasks as Darren Mattocks or Patrick Mullins. Guys of his pay grade need to produce big moments and it often requires some mental and physical freedom to produce them. It’s important to note: Being given freedom and playing within a system aren’t contradictory concepts. The options for improvisation can be pre-arranged in the team’s approach.
In sum, Olsen needs to insert Rooney into a system that provides clear instructions for the player to execute, and he also needs to leave room within the system for Rooney to produce game-changing moments.
I’m excited to watch Wayne Rooney in MLS. It’s always fun to see a player of his quality. I’m more excited to see how Rooney fits in with the D.C. United group, and what type of soccer decisions Olsen creates to provide the best situation for Rooney to succeed.
It’s a basic formula that’s difficult to mix just right – Rooney can’t do it without his teammates, and his teammates can’t do it without him.