WASHINGTON – This time he’s sporting a beard, a bit more gray in his hair and a “WR” on his training top instead of the No. 9. He’s got a few more miles on the odometer, now a young manager rather than a veteran striker.
For D.C. United, it’s the same Wayne Rooney, though – the same inspiring presence and transcendent global icon, well-equipped to lift the sagging fortunes of a proud club just as he did from 2018-19.
“When he came four years ago, we were about 13 points out of the playoffs. We won 40 points, I think, in our last 20 matches, which was the best record in the league during that time period. And I've told Wayne, we expect the same this time,” said United’s CEO and managing general owner Jason Levien playfully as D.C. officially introduced Rooney as their new head coach at Audi Field on Tuesday.
“But even if we don't do as well as that, I think we're going to do quite well. I think you're going to see a real uplift in our play. I think the last couple of days, having Wayne around the organization has put a pep in everyone's step.”
The Black-and-Red are indeed in dire straits as the England international returns, sitting second from bottom in the overall MLS table with a 5W-10L-2D record at their 2022 season's halfway point. That heightens the sense that they’ve pulled off a coup by recruiting Rooney, 36, who bolstered his reputation with sterling work under very trying circumstances over two seasons at Derby County and turned down an approach from his former club Everton earlier this year.
He plans to work at a club of that magnitude someday, and sees a stint in MLS as a proving ground in his own coaching evolution, calling out as “disrespectful” the English pundits who frame this move as a step backwards.
“I’m at the beginning of that journey,” Rooney said. “I’m at a point in my managerial career where I have to put the work in, I have to put the hours in. Of course, I’m an ambitious person, one day I want to manage at the top level. And this is part of that process in terms of coming here, trying to develop this club, trying to get success here, but also develop myself as a manager.
“But also the connection I’ve got with the club, being here before, there isn’t another MLS team I would want other than D.C. United. So I am proud to be here as manager, proud to try and develop this club both on and off the field.”
As he readily admitted, there’s real work to do at the capital club. They’re currently mired in a 1W-5L-2D skid highlighted – or perhaps “lowlighted” is a better description – by Friday’s grisly 7-0 thumping at the hands of the Philadelphia Union, a loss so humbling that it sped up the timeline of Rooney’s arrival significantly.
“Whenever you lose a game the way that we did and by the margin we did, it adds an element of urgency to it,” general manager and head of technical recruitment and analysis Lucy Rushton told MLSsoccer.com. “It puts your club in a place where you need a reaction or you need a change, and you need something drastic at that point. So I think it probably forced the issue a little bit … As tough as last Friday was, it was probably the final straw that we needed really to go make this change and then start our recovery sooner rather than later.”
Levien said the club had been in touch with Rooney and his representatives already at that point. But getting whipped in such fashion by their I-95 neighbors “did factor in,” said president of soccer operations and sporting director Dave Kasper, to the speedy resolution of a contract that reportedly runs through the 2023 season with a club option for 2024.
“We said, ‘wait a minute, where are we headed this season? Where are we headed next season? How do we build the kind of culture where we think we're special and we're doing something positive in the community and positive on the pitch?’” explained Levien. “You sit there and watch some of these matches and you say, we’ve got to be much better than this. We’ve got to perform better. We have to have more fight. We have to have more competitiveness and a better spirit about us.”
When Hernan Losada was dismissed in April, D.C. leadership said they viewed their roster as playoff-caliber and signaled that interim boss Chad Ashton would be given the rest of the campaign to prove his viability for the job.
The difficulties of the past few weeks prompted a shift.
“I think we need some help,” said Kasper, who noted the club plans to fill its two unused Designated Player slots, albeit not necessarily in the current Secondary Transfer Window (runs July 7 to Aug. 4). “I think we need some help.”
"Massive deal for the club"
Rooney wants to make United a much tougher collective first and foremost, while also upgrading the current roster with reinforcements. His arrival is said to have immediately led to a spike in interest from potential signings overseas – “good players, high-level players playing at Premiership clubs,” said Kasper – though his resourcefulness at cash-strapped Derby County was also part of his appeal.
“I believe they're underperforming. I believe there's a lot more for them players to give,” said Rooney of his new team. “The organization has to be right for the players, they have to be hard to beat, and there's principles and a mentality which I have to make sure I put into them players, so when they go on the pitch, they become a real horrible team to play against, but also exciting. And that’s what I’m planning on doing.”
Rooney confirmed reports that his wife Coleen and their four school-age children Kai, Klay, Kit and Cass will remain in the United Kingdom for the time being while he takes up his new project with D.C. Their difficulties with settling in the US cut short his time with United as a player, though he said the context is different this time around.
“They’ll stay in England, but that’s not an issue whatsoever from a family point of view,” said Rooney.
“I just felt I was ready to come here," continued England and Manchester United's all-time leading scorer. "I’m in a completely different place as a human being to what I was probably four years ago, when I was here. I’m fully committed to getting the best out of myself, getting the best out of the players and getting the best out of the team.”
As D.C. discovered during his first stint, Rooney has the gravitas to elevate their organization like few others in the world.
“It's a massive deal for the club. It really is,” said Rushton. “It's going help take us to the next level.”