Wayne Rooney exits D.C. United without a trophy, but leaves a legacy nonetheless
That wasn't the end Wayne Rooney or D.C. United hoped for.
Following a 5-1 extra time loss to Toronto FC in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Rooney's Major League Soccer adventure is officially over. Rooney is leaving for Derby County of the English Championship for the next phase of his career. His final act in MLS involved coming off after the first period of extra time in a game that took a very ugly turn for his team through the first 15 minutes of bonus soccer.
Like so much of his run in America, Rooney's night contained a few good moments and generated some excitement but ultimately finished in disappointment. The world famous, all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and the England national team exploded onto the MLS scene when he arrived in June of 2018. The timing of the move for D.C. was not only about adding a player of world-class ability, but capturing interest ahead of the opening of Audi Field.
No one expected United to pull off a move for a figure as massive as Rooney and his acquisition signalled the beginning of a new era in the District. A man who has called D.C. United games since the first day of the club, Dave Johnson, saw Rooney's arrival in that light.
"When I started on this journey with D.C. United in 1996, I never could have imagined a player like Wayne Rooney representing the Black and Red," Johnson said on the occasion of Rooney's swansong. "It didn't end well and I wish he was staying longer, but I am grateful for the past 18 months."
The combination of the new stadium and Rooney's arrival changed the conversation around a club that lagged behind the more ambitious modern MLS organizations. Ever the professional, Rooney gave everything he had when he got to D.C. Initial concerns that he was either past it as a player or would treat his American sojourn as a vacation proved unfounded and his intensity rubbed off on the rest of his new teammates.
"He's changed everything," said D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum last year on the league's Extratime Radio podcast. "I think he's changed the culture of this club. Guys want to play for him. They want to show him that they're putting in the work just the same as he is. We have this sort of confidence or swag going into games because of him."
The dose of confidence Rooney provided United pushed the team into the playoff conversation following a poor start. He quickly formed an effective partnership with Argentine Luciano Acosta that took the Eastern Conference by storm.
Rooney's most iconic moment in a United shirt wasn't a goal, but an assist to Acosta. A month into his career with United, he sprinted 40 yards to chase down Will Johnson of Orlando City when the Lions midfielder was primed to secure his team a victory. DC head coach Ben Olsen chose to push his goalkeeper forward on a stoppage time corner kick, leaving D.C. exposed. Rooney tackled the ball off of Johnson, took a few touches into the attacking half of the field and unleashed an inch-perfect cross-field ball to a leaping Acosta at the back post.
When United crashed out of the playoffs last season on penalties against Columbus, the letdown was tempered by the knowledge that 2019 could be even better with a full season of Rooney and Acosta playing together. Expectations were high for the first time in years, though some of the reasons why it wasn't were beyond Rooney's control.
Acosta's near-move to PSG seemed to unravel the Argentine mentally, and he and Rooney never connected the way they did in 2018. United didn't spend much on reinforcements, sticking with the group that squeaked into the playoffs last year.
Rooney's announcement that he would end his time in MLS early and leave after the season of Derby County cast a shadow over the rest of his time in Washington. Even if his reasons were understandable, his impending departure was a distraction that nearly upended the season. Rooney himself made poor choices and earned a suspension that took him away from the team during a crucial stretch.
He didn't deliver a trophy (a big ask, all things considered). He didn't stay long enough to become a club icon (though who does these days). He scored 23 goals and provided 15 assists in 15 games and brought a boost to a moribund club.
Was his stint in MLS a success? Johnson thinks so. The voice of United thinks Rooney's impact might be deeper than we think.
"Sure he leaves without a trophy, but he should not leave without our thanks," Johnson said.
"Who knows, there might be a player we want that comes to D.C. because United was once Rooney's club. He helped raised our profile and revitalize D.C. United."