While Rooney hype grows louder, Mattocks quietly having best MLS season

Darren Mattocks - Listens to crowd - After scoring

WASHINGTON — D.C. United forward Darren Mattocks is on pace for the best season of his MLS career. If Wayne Rooney doesn’t get in the way, that is.

With the English superstar finally being announced as D.C.'s newest player after over a month of speculation, Mattocks is a logical candidate to see his minutes reduced as a result. But the 27-year-old Jamaican international isn't making that decision easy.

Through 11 appearances, Mattocks has already scored a career-high tying seven goals in league play, the best total since his rookie campaign in 2012. Ahead of D.C.'s game Saturday at the New England Revolution (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), he's hitting the net at a rate of 0.74 times per 90 minutes, the seventh-best strike rate this season among players with more than five MLS starts. And as a season-opening stretch of 12 of 14 matches on the road to open the season winds to a close, Mattocks joins LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez as the only players to score six away goals this season to date.

Not one to shy away from expectations, Mattocks even told the Jamaica Gleaner last month he is aiming for a 20-goal season. It’s a target he refuses to walk back in the wake of D.C.’s not-so-secret Rooney courtship.

“It definitely motivates me, for sure,” Mattocks told MLSsoccer.com last week. “Whoever comes in with that load of experience and knowledge about the game, it’s definitely going to help the team. And I’m not going to look at this as, ‘Oh, what it’s going to do to affect me personally?’ Because at the end of the day it’s a team game.

“But at the same time, the current form that I’m in and the aim that I want to achieve for myself, whoever comes in, I’m still going to do my best to achieve the goals that I set for myself.”

Confidence and comfort

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Mattocks, far right, and his D.C. teammates celebrate their first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw at Orlando City SC on March 3. | USA Today Sports Images

Confidence is natural for an in-form striker like Mattocks, who along with Yamil Asad has been a key part of D.C.’s offensive improvement in 2018. While D.C. sit in last in the East, they have scored a respectable 1.58 goals per match and have played three-to-six fewer matches than every other team in the Eastern Conference.

But Mattocks’ comfort at D.C. – his third MLS team – feels like it owes to more than success on the field.

For one thing, the relationship between the player and the club goes back some time. Mattocks says D.C. nearly took him with the third overall selection of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft before he opted to return to Akron for his sophomore season. (D.C. would select Akron teammate Perry Kitchen instead.)

For another, when he arrived in Washington, it was already a city of good memories. Mattocks and his teammates still utilize the locker room and auxiliary training field at RFK Stadium, where Mattocks made his Jamaica debut.

And of course, the former Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps man joined a squad that desperately needed a striker, following a 2017 season in which no one scored more than five league goals.

“It felt different,” Mattocks says. “For me I felt like I was given more of an opportunity. And that’s pushed me even more to repay these guys who brought me here.”

In the preseason, coach Ben Olsen publicly spoke of an open battle at striker between Mattocks and Patrick Mullins. Behind closed doors, Mattocks always had the upper hand.

“When Darren came here it was with the understanding that he was going to be a starter,” Olsen said. “He was going to get his minutes.”

Room for both?

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Mattocks made 23 starts across two seasons with the Portland Timbers, but ultimately fell behind Fanendo Adi on the club's depth chart at striker | USA Today Sports Images

But could he still get those minutes in world where Rooney is wearing Black-and-Red?

Mattocks has experience playing on the wing, and Rooney can probably play any of D.C.'s front four spots, which could allow both to start together. But Olsen admits “that’s not ideal” in D.C.’s current 4-1-4-1 setup.

Then there’s the reality of a back-loaded schedule after the July 14 opening of Audi Field. D.C. will play five of its final 20 games during midweek, which may require some squad rotation.

“You have ideas on when you get players on how your team is going to look and play, and then things change,” said Olsen. “When we get that player, we’re going to evaluate a bunch of different looks and see what, as a unit, as a group, where are we most effective. ... That takes a little bit of time, and really the way you judge that is the games.

“It’ll be competitive, and I know Darren’s up for the challenge of keeping his spot and keeping his form and doing what he does.”

Rooney or not, Mattocks is looking forward to that busy stretch. That’s when he believes D.C. fans — and those elsewhere around the league — are going to be forced to take notice of a side that has quietly put together some impressive offensive performances of late.

“When teams watch video, they know this is a really good team,” Mattocks says. “They know we’re not getting results and we’ve had a lot of away games, but they know that they can’t take it for granted. Maybe in the past people say, ‘Oh it’s D.C. United, it’s no big deal.’ But when we get our stadium and when we get our home games, I think it’s going to change really quick.”