The former England captain has had a successful start to his career with DC United as he adapts to a new approach to the game across the Atlantic
If ever there was a moment to illustrate all that is good about Wayne Rooney, it came in his one-man crash-bang-wallop show against Orlando City. Youll have seen it by now – the sprint back as DC Uniteds last man, with their keeper having gone up for a corner. The crunching tackle to stop the visitors from scoring into an empty net. The turn and cross to the back post for Luciano Acosta to score a last-gasp winner, sending Audi Field wild. It was classic Rooney lung-bursting hustle and no little skill.
Of course, weve seen these sort of moments before. Take Rooneys thumping volley against Newcastle United in 2005, for instance, when he turned away from an squabble with the referee to nearly take the net off with a thunderous strike from 20 yards out. Or his winner against Liverpool also in 2005, when having taken abuse from the home crowd at Anfield, he fired home to give Manchester United three points. Rooney plays best with gritted teeth and a furrowed brow.
This is the line along which Rooneys career is defined. For every moment of dogged single-mindedness like the one he produced for DC United a couple weeks ago, there is a moment of red mist, a moment of regret. So far, though, DC United have got the best side of Rooney, with the forward scoring three times and contributing two assists in his last five games for his new club.
And yet for all that Rooney has impressed over the past few weeks, DC United are just four points from the foot of the Eastern Conference. Their recent form – four wins and a draw from five games – has lifted them a few places, but this only underlines just how much work is still to be done to make this season a success. If DC United are to stand any chance of making the playoffs, Rooneys resurgence will have to continue.
Not for years has Rooney been played in the way he has of late, as an out and out centre-forward. In fact, not since the 2011-12 season, before Robin van Persie made the switch from Arsenal to Manchester United, has Rooney carried the burden up-front. Ben Olsen is the first coach in a long time to have placed this sort of faith in him.
This has been key to Rooneys MLS renaissance. His track-back and tackle against Orlando City bounced around social media for days, but that sort of play is no longer expected from the 32-year-old. Instead, DC United want him to lead the line, to preserve his energy for when it matters in front of goal. Acosta is generally the one charging around the pitch, chasing every ball going. Sir Alex Ferguson, Louis Van Gaal and Sam Allardyce all saw Rooney as a potential midfielder. Olsen sees him as a striker and only a striker.
Naturally, theres only so much Rooney can do to curb his natural instincts. His explosiveness, the fire that ignites his game, has always been his greatest quality, and so there remains a creative spark, an irrepressible urge to affect the match in whatever way he can. He still demands the ball deep. He still takes free-kicks, like the one he curled home against the Portland Timbers last week. He is not a completely orthodox No 9 despite the role he is now playing.
Looking at the impact made by Rooney through a commercial lens, though, the former England captain has done more on the pitch than off it. While he has undoubtedly made DC United a more exciting team to watch, giving MLS a viral moment to rival that of Zlatan Ibrahimovics debut in the LA derby earlier in the season, this has resulted in just one sell-out at DC Uniteds new Audi Field stadium. That one sell-out was for the venues opening game, which likely would have sold out without Rooney anyway.
It will take more than one player, even one as good as Rooney, to address the apathy that has grown around DC United over the years. Audi Field provides a far superior matchday experience to the one offered by the crumbling, unfit for purpose RFK Stadium, but it will take time to lure fans to the new ground. There has been no Atlanta United-style influx of new supporters. In retrospect, that was never realistic.
Many will point out that the drop in quality from the Premier League to MLS has been a factor in Rooneys early success at DC United and that argument holds some weight. Yet this ignores the ways in which Rooney has changed over his first few weeks in the States. In a sense, what we have seen from him at DC United so far is a player making up for lost time. Its not so much a case of the Rooney of old, but of Rooney hitting old heights in a new way.