Wayne Rooney can make D.C. United better. Why? Because it can’t get much worse

Wayne Rooney has competed in a minor Major League Soccer miracle before. In 2018, the ex-Manchester United and Everton striker joined a faltering DC United side mid-season, taking the Black-Reds to 40 points in their last 20 games to earn an unlikely post-season spot to back up.

It almost didn’t matter that DCU was thrown back by the Columbus crew in the first round. Rooney, with 12 goals and seven assists in 21 league and playoff games, had shown the club and their fans a tantalizing glimpse of what was possible, embodied by his sprint-tackle-dribbling-assist sequence that delivered a game-winner through Luciano, Acosta secured a 3-2 win over Orlando City SC.

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In 2018, Wayne Rooney completed one of the most incredible games in MLS history to help DCU beat Orlando.

Four years later, Rooney is asked for another divine intervention when he was announced as DC’s new manager on Wednesday. United are experiencing a complete mess of a season and are currently tied with the fewest points in the league alongside the Chicago Fire. DCU managed seven points out of a possible 12 following the April 20 sacking of Hernan Losada. But, as is so often the case with such maneuvers, it proved to be the proverbial dead-cat crash.

Since then, the Black and Reds have picked up just four points in seven games and now, with just 17 games left in the season, it’s up to Rooney to reverse the team’s fortunes. His time will be even more limited. Until he receives his work visa, which sources say could take a week or two, he will limit himself to watching training and matches. While there is a lot of communication going on in the background, it’s far from optimal.

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There’s every reason to expect Rooney to make things better, aside from the fact that they can’t get much worse. A lot can be said about presence and charisma. The respect for him within the organization and the player couldn’t be higher. He has been widely lauded for the work he has done for English champions club Derby County despite crushing penalties for the club’s financial situation. So he knows what it’s like to work in difficult circumstances.

Rooney’s previous experience in MLS will also stand him in good stead. While playing and managing are two entirely different jobs, there will be few surprises in terms of the league’s travel requirements, extreme weather, roster restrictions and overall cadence.

Rooney also seems to have a keen sense of what kind of player works in MLS. While he hasn’t completely written off the signing of Luis Suarez (who claims to have offers on his hands from several MLS clubs), Rooney said: “I want players who are hungry” but “who also have a lot to give and able to play any game.” He understands that in MLS that goes a long way.

The fact that Rooney is reprising his role as Savior is an indictment of DC’s overall direction since he left after the 2019 season. His recruitment has been described as a huge step forward, but put another way, it could be argued that confidence in the Englishman shows the organization going in circles, complete with mismatched parts. (Ola Kamara as a backup? Really?) At the other end of the field, DCU has scored 39 goals in 18 games, a rate that threatens FC Cincinnati’s nefarious season record of 75 set in 2019.

Rooney will certainly help Black and Reds be more organized and play harder, traits that were clearly lacking in last Friday’s 7-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union. There’s also gravity that comes with the Gravitas, with Rooney-inspired reinforcements presumably on the way as well. There are two open Designated Player slots that can be filled.

DC United GM Lucy Rushton said the club will look to midfield for help and Brad Smith’s recent ACL injury suggests a left-back is badly needed.

“I think we need help to probably go from defense to attack and get the ball in good attacking moments,” she said. “I also think we probably need a bit of steel and bite in midfield too – a bit of roughness – and the leadership that often comes with that kind of position.”

Rooney’s presence will only get DC United so far, however, and there are issues that need to be addressed if the feel-good factor of his arrival wanes. Is the structure in place to maximize Rooney’s abilities? How jarring a tactical course correction will Rooney’s arrival be? What will happen when the inevitable day comes when he announces he’s leaving for a bigger job? Have plans been formulated to sustain what he is introducing?

Rushton, who has been in her role for 15 months, insists Rooney would not have taken the job had he not believed he had the support he needed. Fair enough. But she admitted there will be a small transition when Rooney takes over. She said Rooney’s tactical approach, while incorporating some elements of a pressing style, will not be as strong as Losada’s, particularly given United’s fragile defence. The time for fluid football can come later.

“I’d say more of a controlled type of press,” Rushton said. “So I think it’s probably going to be a bit different in that regard. I think first and foremost being compact defensively. We’ve conceded too many goals this season, so I think that’s an area where we really have to work.” come on and find out.”

Rooney’s arrival might not mean a 180-degree turn from Losada, but it’s a change of direction nonetheless, so getting everyone on the same page will take time. That’s a commodity that neither DCU nor Rooney have much of.

As for Rooney’s long-term future, he certainly wouldn’t be the first manager to use MLS as a stepping stone to bigger things. Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Patrick Vieira, Jesse Marsch and most recently Ronny Deila have all joined after varying degrees of success in MLS. But in the case of New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls, the philosophy has remained. Will this also be the case in DC? It has to be if Rooney’s second stint in the nation’s capital is to bring long-term benefit.

Rushton says it comes down to identifying as a club, attracting players who fit that style and then recruiting and scouting from there. How would you describe this identity? Rushton insists the process is ongoing and to be fair she joined the club after Losada was brought on ahead of the 2021 season.

“I think our identity has to be a very hard-working, forward-playing team that is compact and tight defensively but aggressive up front,” she said. “And I think you’ve seen that from us over the last 18 months too, in terms of how we go out and press teams, how we play in the last third. I don’t think that has changed. I think we still want to be that offensive and fun team, but we need to do it from a more compact and defensively robust way [foundation].”

Rushton admitted the team’s overall identity is now “in a bit of a transition” as Rooney will, however, have his own way of doing things. This fundamental work still needs to be done to avoid another cultural course correction when he eventually departs.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Rooney’s attitude. If you get the chance to hire a manager of his stature, even if he’s relatively inexperienced, take it. He clearly cares about the club and if his time there as a player counts he will put his heart and soul into the job.

“I know it will be a lot of hard work that we have to put in [myself]I have to bring it up,” Rooney said at his unveiling. “The players have to be there. I have demands, principles that the players have to abide by.”

However, it’s not just the manager’s job that needs improvement for DCU. Everything around Rooney needs to get better, be it support structures, recruitment and the like. The next few months will show to what extent this will happen.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/dc-united/story/4700363/wayne-rooney-can-make-dc-united-better-why-because-it-cant-get-much-worse Wayne Rooney can make D.C. United better. Why? Because it can’t get much worse

Emma Bowman

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