WASHINGTON – Felipe had no plans to celebrate his 29th birthday last month. His family had yet to arrive in Washington, where he had been traded in August from the Vancouver Whitecaps to shore up D.C. United’s midfield.
Then around 6 p.m, as he sat alone in a new apartment in a new city, the phone rang. It was Wayne Rooney.
“He calls me. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” Felipe recounted. “I said, ‘nothing.’ So he said, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”
The pair went out to a local restaurant, where Rooney had a birthday cake waiting.
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“It was special, because you grow up watching a player. And then I come in and as soon as I got here, we’ve been close,” Felipe said. “On my birthday, I didn’t expect anything. And he calls you, and he knows you don’t have your family, let’s go out. … He’s always thinking about his teammates.”
At a club where all eight Hall of Tradition members have won at least one MLS Cup, Rooney may never achieve the same fan reverence from diehards that’s afforded to Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes.
But in the dressing room, the technical staff offices, the team flights, busses and meals, Rooney has offered all his wisdom, experience and quality without the baggage of others of similar cachet.
Put simply, the former England and Manchester United star has fit in. In the process, the 33-year-old has proven to a club traditionally hesitant to invest in a big-name European star that it can do so without sacrificing an identity.
“He’s been a big plus for this club,” said D.C. manager Ben Olsen said. “He’s been a part of, coupled with the stadium, USL over the last year and a half, some announcements that have really pushed this club forward. Working with him, it’s been a really good relationship.
“On the field, I think he’s helped us in a big way. Off the field, I think he’s pushed me. I think he’s made me a better coach, a better manager. And I think he’s been a very good teammate and a good ambassador to the club.”
Rooney has catalyzed change, but it’s been more evolution than revolution. For example, it’s likely not coincidental that Olsen has shown the most tactical flexibility during his only full season of coaching the Derby County-bound player/coach.
“He’s a very knowledgeable guy, whether it’s the locker room dynamics or also tactically. He’s played some high-level soccer for some high-level coaches,” Olsen said. “So picking his brain and discussing kind of what we’re doing internally, there’s always a lot of fruitful dialogue that you have since he’s arrived.”
Rooney has also crafted some stirring moments at Audi Field, D.C.’s new home, though none have come with hardware on the line. “The Tackle” against Orlando City, as it’s now known around these parts, remains arguably the greatest D.C. moment in at least a decade.
A year later, another stunning strike from inside his own half against the same Orlando goal brought about special memories.
“I just think being on the field with him producing some of those special moments, those are things I’ll always remember,” said D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse. “It’s not always the case where you get to step on the field with a player of that caliber and who has achieved that much in his career. So I’ll remember those moments and just appreciate them.”
Rooney may not even get a D.C. farewell. He served a yellow-card suspension during D.C.’s regular-season finale, and the Black-and-Red will have to reach at least the Eastern Conference Final if they are to host a playoff game. They’ll get underway this Saturday (6 pm ET | TUDN in US; TSN4, TVAS2 in Canada) at Toronto FC in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
If he and United do go quietly in the postseason, it will be in stark opposition to the outsized fanfare that greeted Rooney’s arrival. And it won’t be representative of his substantial influence around these parts during his stay.
Then again, it just might be fitting for a player who came to America looking for a new challenge, as well as a reminder of why he loved the game.
“Obviously, he’s a winner, he’s a champion,” Felipe said. “He has played at the highest level possible. And you can’t even understand how humble he is.”