On Tuesday D.C. United played their first match without Wayne Rooney since the English legend’s midsummer arrival last year, thanks to Saturday’s red card vs. LAFC. And from an attacking standpoint, it wasn’t pretty.
Robbed of their talismanic striker, the Black-and-Red front four labored against the Montreal Impact, failing to direct a single shot on Evan Bush’s goal in a 0-0 draw at Audi Field – and not even really spending all that much time in the opposition’s penalty box, for that matter. Ulises Segura, Rooney's replacement in the XI, offered relatively little as a stand-in No. 9.
Let's check in on #DCU's experiment (granted, they also tried it out in preseason) with midfielder Ulises Segura in Wayne Rooney's No. 9 role...— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) April 10, 2019
This is Segura's ...sparse... Opta map for the first half of #DCvMTL: pic.twitter.com/w2nDzUzYQ9
Credit is due to Montreal’s defensive performance; the visitors stuck to the sturdy low block that has become their calling card, and were ruggedly physical when United ventured into their defensive third. But with Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber still providing creative options in D.C.’s lineup, coach Ben Olsen and his staff have reason for concern at the meager output.
“We didn’t create that many chances, but that was [Montreal’s] plan,” Olsen said postgame. “We knew it and they make things very difficult. We could have used Wayne’s quality out there, for sure, but I still think with the crew out there, we could have produced more opportunities. That part was a little disappointing.”
FC Barcelona have for years been accused of “Messidependencia” due to the enormous influence of the great Lionel Messi. The Brazil of Ronaldo’s prime years were considered a shadow of their best selves when lacking the big No. 9’s dominating skill set. Perhaps D.C. have a comparable “Roonliance” on their superstar – though it’s no great shock when a good team depends heavily on a great player in their midst.
Rooney has racked up four goals and three assists in United's first four games of 2019, continuing the pace he set last year with 12g/7a in his first 20 MLS appearances. His value to D.C. runs much deeper than those numbers, however, or even his varied skillset as a target striker equally comfortable with his back to goal, dropping into space to playmake or roaming far and wide to make maximum impact. Oh, and he delivers a mean set piece, too.
Since the day he touched down in D.C., “Wazza” has elevated the focus, commitment and output of everyone around him – coaxing the best out of Acosta, setting the standard on the training ground and serving as the face of a franchise still re-introducing itself to its city and the rest of MLS in its new era at Audi Field.
“He makes everything easier,” said Acosta, who cut a frustrated, ineffective figure on Tuesday, of his “LuchoRoo” partner last year.
“His habits on the field are so contagious to some of our young guys in how to go about the game and make the right play and dig in when you need to,” noted Olsen at the same juncture. “On both sides of the ball his habits are great, and nobody else can look at that and not follow his lead.”
Tuesday provided another data point on why the 3.5-year contract that reportedly pays Rooney at least $12 million, and possibly north of $19 million depending on performance incentives, might just be the best Designated Player value in MLS.
It’s up to Olsen to figure out how to make his attack function should the Englishman be sidelined again. For now, though, he and United will give thanks that Rooney returns for this weekend’s trip to Colorado.