Wiebe: Big questions abound for DC United this year and beyond

You’ll have to forgive D.C. United supporters for the bags under their eyes today. Give them coffee, and maybe even a hug. Tuesday’s transfer carousel was one hell of a ride, and the ride’s not over until 12:59 am ET tonight when the window closes.

Two weeks ago, it was just a family vacation to rest tired legs. Now, 14 months after his debut on a historic summer night at Audi Field, Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United career is officially ticking down. The club’s marquee player and biggest signing of all-time is off to Derby County at the end of the season as a player-coach to give his family the familiar life they craved.

That news would have been enough to give anyone whiplash, but there was more. Much more. Like Mesut Ozil, Mario Balotelli and a whole raft of signings, trades and rumors more. We’ll get to those — and D.C.’s back-to-the-drawing-board future — but this all starts with Rooney, who made the decision that’s altered the trajectory of United’s future.

What’s Wayne Rooney’s legacy in D.C.?

From all indications, Rooney enjoyed his life in the United States, but his family didn’t and that changed everything. From the outside looking in, it seems the move came out of the blue. In reality, it was almost certainly a slow and steady burn.

The Rooneys missed their family and friends, and their family and friends missed them. They reached a breaking point. Derby County was a good opportunity. They made a family decision, albeit a tough one, I’m sure. I get it. I expect you get it, too.

Of course, Rooney’s exit after just over 13 months changes the way he’ll be remembered in MLS terms, somewhere between Frank Lampard and David Villa with Robbie Keane at the top of the barrel. Often transcendent when he played — 23 goals and 14 assists in 43 MLS matches — but gone too soon. Of course, that could change. His on-field legacy is not yet written, not the closing chapters anyway.

“You know, legacies come from winning trophies,” Rooney said this week. “You can say this player was a good player or he’s done this, but legacies come from winning titles, it’s what you leave behind, it’s a history. Obviously in my situation I have a few months to try and do that.”

If D.C. United are preparing to embark on a 2018-esque late-season run and make history, they’ve done a masterful job disguising it. Ben Olsen’s team has won twice since May 12. They’re simultaneously fourth in the Eastern Conference — playoff hosts as it stands — and four points out of the postseason entirely. Both ecstasy and agony are still in play.

Oh, and more change is coming. We’ll get to that in a second.

In the meantime, what nobody can take away from Rooney is the instant buzz and credibility his signing generated for a club that had been treading water, to put it kindly, at RFK Stadium and in the public consciousness for years. His signing was a success. Full stop.

Audi Field, Rooney and his relationship with Luciano Acosta that fueled the team’s incredible run last summer primed the soccer engine in the nation’s capital. Can D.C. United prevent that engine from stalling? Can they take advantage of the runway the 34-year-old gave them? That’s on the club, not Rooney.

Now what for D.C. United in 2019?

Run it back and hope for the best. One last time for the memories … with a little more firepower to boot.

Here’s the D.C. United transaction/rumor rundown from yesterday, thanks to the dogged reporting of Pablo Maurer (The Athletic) and Steve Goff (Washington Post), among others, and cribbed from Tom Bogert’s excellent transfer wrap from Tuesday.

In summation — and remember there’s a whole day for GM Dave Kasper to continue adding and subtracting, not to mention more time to sign out-of-contract players —D.C. picked up depth following injuries to Russell Canouse and Chris Durkin, acquired TAM to buy down Kamara’s DP contract once that deal is finalized, are closing in on a low-risk attacking option and nearly spent a couple million on a 22-year-old who scored double-digit goals last season in Greece.

Not bad, given the circumstances. Encouraging even, given the transfer fees in play.

The big move, of course, is Kamara. The 29-year-old striker is a goal-every-two-games scorer in MLS. His worst season came last year, played out of position on the wing to make room for Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Galaxy. Kamara still scored 14 goals. He ought to be motivated. Let’s just say China didn’t exactly go as planned.

So Kamara up top, LuchoRoo (gotta hold on to it for as long as possible, right?) behind him and the rest of the team set up to provide defensive structure and service. If those three get hot — and Bill Hamid starts erasing goals — why couldn’t D.C. make a run? Why couldn’t they add another MLS Cup to the trophy case? Far crazier things have happened in this league.

Hey, why not dream big, right? It’ll all be over before we know it anyway.

Now what for D.C. United in 2020 and beyond?

When the Rooney news first started trickling out, I thought, “Time to go back to the drawing board.”

It’s not just Rooney who could depart at the end of this season. Acosta is probably gone. Hamid, Leonardo Jara and Lucas Rodriguez are all on loans that expire at the end of 2019, too. Most of us — Kasper included, I’m sure — thought the 2020 team would be built around Rooney and, ideally, Acosta.

It won’t, so there’s no time to waste identifying and signing a new club cornerstone. And that’s where Mesut Ozil and Mario Balotelli come into play. Per Goff, one of Ozil’s representatives will meet with D.C. officials next week. It seems they’re familiar with one another.

That’s good news. Not because there’s any certainly United will sign Ozil, but because it seems they’re willing to spend at the level it takes to get a player of that caliber. Just as they were willing to spend on Rooney a little more than a year ago. Now isn’t the time to pull back, not with the engine primed for the first time in years.

“We've got our stadium, we've got a lot of momentum from that,” co-owner and CEO

Jason Levien told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle. “We've grown our fan base, we've grown the visibility of our club in a big way the last two seasons. We don't plan to rest on our laurels or stop there. We want to take it to a whole new level."

What does that level look like? We don’t know yet. We just know it doesn’t include Rooney. Enjoy him while you can.

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