Boehm: Tall tasks, great expectations await Wayne Rooney at DC United

WASHINGTON – D.C. got the deal done. Now comes the hard part.

After report after report over weeks upon weeks of speculation and anticipation, D.C. United finally have Wayne Rooney in the fold. It’s a landmark signing and a landmark moment for a proud club that’s mere weeks away from opening a new home, and thus a new chapter in its history, the longest and most storied in MLS.

For most readers, “Wazza” needs no introduction. Ferociously driven and preternaturally talented, he’s been a superstar since age 16 or so, and has scaled nearly every height the world game has to offer.

Even at age 32, with high mileage on those bustling legs, he’s a great get for both United and MLS, and will surely aim for the sort of instant impact Zlatan Ibrahimovic made on his Stateside arrival earlier this year.

If the extensive reporting on this deal on both sides of the Atlantic is accurate, and there’s little reason to doubt it, Manchester United and the English national team’s all-time leading scorer is making history before he even sets foot on a pitch in D.C. colors:

  • D.C. United’s highest-paid player ever, by a mile
  • D.C. United’s biggest contract ever, also by a mile or two
  • D.C. United’s biggest signing ever, in terms of both global stardom and local buzz

This is simultaneously a coup, a gamble and a head-turning statement of intent. Rooney has been acquired not merely to score and create goals and spark MLS’s last-placed team on a late-breaking run at the playoffs. He’s also the centerpiece of a Black-and-Red comeback bid, a sweeping attempt to vault back into the local and national spotlight after half a decade of flying under the radar at ancient RFK Stadium.

On July 14 D.C. will christen Audi Field, their cozy new waterfront stadium a few long goal kicks south of the U.S. Capitol, with a visit from the Vancouver Whitecaps. No team in MLS has waited longer, or endured more trials and tribulations, for a home of their own. And no team needs a centerpiece for the occasion more acutely.

United are looking up at the rest of the league in the standings – to be fair, due in large part to the backloaded schedule necessitated by Audi Field’s construction schedule. And by the time Rooney is eligible for match play (which just happens to be that July 14 affair), they’ll have 20 games left in which to rack up the 40 or so points they’d need to reach the total that earned the New York Red Bulls the East’s final postseason berth last year. That’s an average of two points a game, which is exactly the pace league leaders Atlanta United and Sporting KC are on at present.

“We have to get better right now,” United head coach Ben Olsen told reporters after his team’s training session on Tuesday. “I think we’re a good team, I think we’re an exciting team, I think we got a lot – we’re dynamic, we can score goals. We’re having a little bit of trouble winning games, those experienced moments that really get you all the points, but I like this team. I like watching this team and I like [that] we’re an exciting group. We’re young – they’re fearless – and I think with an addition or two, we can make a real run at the playoffs.”

Off the field, D.C. are also hunting for a much greater share of the spotlight in the sixth-largest sports media market in the United States.

Washington is home to the freshly-crowned NHL champion Capitals, a Nationals baseball team widely viewed as World Series contenders, two well-supported pro basketball teams, myriad NCAA programs, the NWSL’s Washington Spirit and a money-spinning NFL behemoth that dominates the city’s sporting landscape despite decades of dysfunction.

The D.C. area is also one of the richest soccer hotbeds in North America, albeit a highly cosmopolitan one where the local pro sides have to compete for viewers with myriad offerings from abroad. D.C. United’s owners and most dedicated fans kept the faith over years of financial losses and uneven results, always aiming for the distant vision of a downtown soccer stadium anchoring a return to glory.

That vision has arrived at last. And Wayne Rooney is the headliner.

“Soccer in this area is very healthy, going off of the numbers of how many people watch the sport,” said Olsen when asked about Audi Field’s impending impact. “I think what it will do is help us capture a lot of those soccer viewers that are still not fans of D.C. United. With our current fanbase and then adding new people to our family with a new building, I think [it] is a great recipe. We look forward to opening day and then starting to get a new home with people that like us, and not going away. It will be refreshing for everyone.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t be one of the best places to play in the country.”

No pressure, Wayne!

And that's before we get to this next point, which I’ve written different iterations of several times over the past few years, because many of this fast-growing league’s fans are younger, or newcomers, who didn’t witness the commanding position D.C. occupied for most of MLS’s first decade-and-a-half of existence. Put simply, the Black-and-Red were the league’s flagship, the standard by which franchises were judged on the field, at the trophy case, in the stands, in the front office and across their communities.

The belt-tightening of the final years at RFK allowed competitors to seize that mantle. United want it back, and Rooney is the linchpin – though he can't do it alone, and D.C. also need reinforcements along the back line. 

He and his new teammates have their work cut out for them.

“If and when additions come, it’ll be a sight,” Olsen said, with a cagey grin. “And I think the additions that we will bring in will help this club in a whole bunch of different ways – but first and foremost on the field. That’s where we need help right now. To get us over the hump. We’ll get it right.”

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