HARRISON, N.J. – This isn’t the same D.C. United side the New York Red Bulls defeated on the road a month ago. And the main reason, the Red Bulls say, is that Wayne Rooney is popping up all over the field as not only a scorer but a playmaker as well.
United comes into Red Bull Arena on Sunday night (7 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info) on a bit of a tear after a slow start, and rising up the Eastern Conference standings. Having not lost since the Red Bulls' 1-0 victory at Audi Field on July 25, United have four wins and 13 points from their last five matches entering Heineken Rivalry Week, a stretch coinciding with Rooney finding his fitness and form.
Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams said Rooney is not unlike New York City FC captain David Villa. It was Villa, the former Spanish international, who scored early in the second half this past Wednesday at Yankee Stadium to secure a 1-1 draw between the Red Bulls and NYCFC.
“The minute you think he’s just an underneath guy, a false nine who goes underneath, sprays ball, gets on the ball and relieves pressure and bring people in…then he’s running the line, giving breakaways, running behind,” said Armas following Friday’s training at Red Bull Arena. “Naturally, he’s a guy that is very comfortable underneath so you have to understand where he operates but knowing that, the minute you take that away, he’s just onside, slashing behind. Guys like this, guys like David Villa, one play can make a difference and they’re always a threat. So you have to understand all the areas in which he operates in.”
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Signed in June and officially added to D.C.'s roster at the beginning of the recently closed Secondary Transfer Window, the former English international has three goals and two assists over the course of United’s current five-match unbeaten run. But what is most impressive is Rooney's work dropping deep at times to make plays and create space for his teammates.
The trickle down effect for United is that the rest of the team is lifted by Rooney’s abilities. In particular, the midfield is clicking and poised, moving the ball and quickly.
“They look more confident. Of course he’s a great player, he can keep the ball, he’s a smart guy, he’s a strong guy,” midfielder Daniel Royer said. “Good in battling so, I think when he keeps the ball, it gives the wingers and their No. 10 [Luciano Acosta] more time and space to find spaces. ... He’s a great passer as well and I think that is one point sometimes people don’t mention. He’s not giving away a lot of balls, he’s not losing a lot of balls."
The timing of Sunday's match is perhaps ideal for the Red Bulls after Wednesday’s deflating draw against a NYCFC team that conceded first and finished the match with only nine men. Playing against this franchise's original rival so soon after means no time to hang their head following a draw that felt in many ways like a loss.
“It’s not about who we play. It’s about that we get the three points,” Royer said. “I think this season we had a lot of situations where we had to bounce back and I think we always showed a good reaction in terms of bouncing back and showing a good reaction after a bad game or not a perfect game. I think that’s just the way we want to handle the next game as well to get the three points.”