Wayne Rooney - smiling - Max Urruti

WASHINGTON — On the eve of his first season-opener match for D.C. United, Wayne Rooney approaches his first full season in MLS as an even bigger believer in the league than when he first arrived.

He need only point to his former home, the English Premier League, as Exhibit A.

“I don’t know if any of [you] watched the Newcastle game the other day,” Rooney said during Tuesday's press conference at Audi Field, referencing the performance Saturday of former Atlanta United creator Miguel Almiron.

“Almiron went in and he was the best player on the pitch by a mile,” said Rooney, whose team face Atlanta to open the 2019 campaign on Sunday (6 pm ET | ESPN - full TV & streaming info). “I think that’s great for this league to have players going over, to England, to Spain wherever they go and to perform. [It] will give fans around the world and in Europe maybe a different opinion on MLS.”

Before D.C.’s departure to Florida for their preseason, Rooney expressed his belief that the Black-and-Red should aim to contend for the 2019 MLS Cup. But he also stressed Tuesday that’s more a reflection of what he thinks of D.C.’s growth as a club, rather than the competition it will face in the Eastern Conference and beyond.

“I respect the league of course because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” Rooney said. “I think the standard of play maybe took me by surprise a little bit with the amount of quality there is in the league.”

With the high-profile departures of Almiron, Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies to Europe this offseason, Rooney believes more big international clubs will be mining MLS for talent.

Eventually, however, he hopes some of those young, sought-after stars decide to join him here. Perhaps Pity Martinez, Almiron’s like-for-like replacement who joins Atlanta at age 25, is one of those.

“Hopefully you start getting players in their mid 20s, instead of the big teams in Europe, you can convince them to come here,” he said. “Because I do think it’s a fantastic league, it’s got the foundations to keep growing, and I think players are seeing that and deciding to come here maybe when they have other offers around Europe.”