Stejskal: How Wayne Rooney is transforming DC United

For the first time in at least two years, D.C. United are fun again. And it’s largely thanks to an Englishman.

After a miserable 2017 and a rough, road-heavy start to 2018, Wayne Rooney and D.C. are one of the hottest teams in MLS heading into the final two months of the regular season. The Black-and-Red have won three in a row, are unbeaten in five and, thanks to their hot streak, the excitement generated by Rooney and the long-awaited opening of Audi Field, have more momentum than any MLS team this side of the Seattle Sounders.

“The vibe is great. Everyone is doing well and I think it’s nice to continue to have the motivation and to have that taste in our mouth of success and what it can feel like and what it can do for the team,” midfielder Paul Arriola told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “There’s definitely a lot of self-belief right now. I think we all believe we can push ourselves into a playoff spot and hold ourselves there.”

It’s not hard to understand why United are confident. They’re not just winning – they’re doing it in style. During their five-game unbeaten run, D.C.’s attack has improved drastically. They have significantly higher averages in goals, expected goals, chances created, shots, shots on goal and possession during their streak than they did in 17 games prior. Heading into Sunday’s Heineken Rivalry Week match against the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info), they’re just six points back of Montreal for the East’s final playoff spot and hold four games in hand on the Impact.

They’ve gotten a couple of star performances from Rooney, starting with his dramatic, game-saving tackle-turned-game-winning assist in a 3-2 win against Orlando City on Aug. 12 and continuing three days later with his brace in a 4-1 win against the Portland Timbers. The 32-year-old now has three goals and three assists in eight games since he debuted for D.C.

Perhaps more important than any of his stats, however, is what he’s meant to his United teammates. Even when he’s not scoring or playmaking, Rooney, simply by being on the field, has changed how D.C. play. He’s vastly different stylistically than previous starter Darren Mattocks, whose speed-oriented game creates more direct-line pressure rather than possession or playmaking, which are Rooney's strong suits. Rooney's skill and tactical smarts allow D.C. to play less direct than they did when Mattocks was the starter, and the need for opposing defenses to constantly key in on him gives more time and space to Arriola and fellow attackers Luciano Acosta, Yamil Asad and Zoltan Stieber.

“100 percent, 100 percent,” Arriola said when asked if Rooney’s arrival had created more time and space for him and the rest of D.C.’s attack. “That’s the best thing about it, in different games there’s different players showing up and making big plays.

“These teams, obviously you focus in on their main player and their superstar and before Wayne got here, maybe it was Lucho and Lucho wasn’t having enough time and maybe it was some games myself, Zoltan or Yamil, and now a lot of the attention goes to Wayne which opens up a lot of space for the rest of us. These teams are constantly thinking about Wayne and how to stop him, but they kind of give us a little too much space and we’re able to take advantage.”

Acosta has been on a roll since the arrival of Rooney | USA Today Sports Images

If the extra space and time on the ball has helped Arriola, Asad and Stieber, it’s created a whole new world for Acosta. The 24-year-old Argentine has four goals, three assists and 16 chances created in his last five matches. In his first 16 games this season, the playmaker had one goal, seven assists and 20 chances created. He’s already developed an excellent chemistry with Rooney (who he affectionately dubbed “El Señor Wayne” after the win against Orlando) and, like many of his teammates, seems to be playing as if a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.

“It’s really fun, it’s really fun,” said Arriola. “We’re constantly changing. I’ll catch myself on the left side sometimes, Yamil’s a lot of times tucked in, Lucho is kind of up top, Wayne’s dropping in to receive the ball, we’re constantly changing.”

The defending has improved as well, something that was noted by both Arriola and defensive midfielder Russell Canouse. After allowing 34 goals in their first 17 games, D.C. have conceded just five goals in their five-game unbeaten run. Canouse put the improvement down to a few factors, including a general boost in confidence, an uptick in possession and less of a tendency to get stretched thanks to their new, slightly more compact shape with Rooney.

And while times are good for D.C., they know there’s plenty of work left to do. Their job won’t get any easier over the next few weeks, as United will follow their trip to the Red Bulls this weekend with home matches against streaking Philadelphia and Supporters’ Shield leaders Atlanta and an away contest at third-place New York City FC, who are unbeaten in 13 matches at Yankee Stadium this season.

“It’s only going to start getting tougher,” said Canouse. “Yes, we have games in hand, but we still need to pick up a lot of points to get where we want to get this year.”

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