Football: Wayne Rooney shines for DC United as he makes MLS debut at a club in need of a boost

DC United's Wayne Rooney and Vancouver Whitecaps' Nicolas Mezquida fighting for the ball during their MLS match on July 14, 2018.
DC United's Wayne Rooney and Vancouver Whitecaps' Nicolas Mezquida fighting for the ball during their MLS match on July 14, 2018. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

(THE GUARDIAN) - For the first two weeks of his new life in America, Wayne Rooney lumbered sheepishly though his DC United press events, mumbling the usual banalities.

But then came Saturday (July 14) night, and his Major League Soccer (MLS) debut, which was also United's first game in their new stadium. He stepped onto the pitch in the 59th minute and suddenly it was obvious to everyone that he was anything but ordinary.

Rooney is nearing the end of his career and came to the United States straight off a vacation, yet he was the best player in DC's 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps. He sprayed passes to his team-mates with such precision and velocity that they sometimes seemed surprised to see the ball coming. He lunged past defenders to fire shots at goal. A flicked header forced the Vancouver goalkeeper, Brian Rowe, to make a desperate save.

And when the game was over, with Rooney having helped create two goals, the United players realised they had something they had never seen before.

"To be honest I've never played with players the calibre of Wayne," said United midfielder Paul Arriola, who scored those two goals initiated by Rooney.

Forgive the DC players if they were not sure exactly what they were getting.

Rooney's transfer from Everton last month smacked of a public relations stunt by a club desperate for a big name with which to unveil their gleaming US$400 million (S$554 million) stadium with views of the Washington Monument and US Capitol.

The history of worn-out overseas superstars desperate for one last payday is a long one in American sports and given that Everton appeared to not want him any more, those in Washington had to wonder if they were getting an aloof, wobbling replica of a once-great Rooney.

The player who arrived, however, had none of the arrogance they might have imagined. "Humble" is the word Arriola kept using. The team's head coach, Ben Olsen, was more direct Saturday night: "A high-quality, elite soccer player."

Rooney made little about himself in his first match here. He did make the players around him better, however. His impact was immediately obvious. The United held a 1-0 lead but seemed lethargic when Rooney finally entered to faint cries of "We want Rooney" from the capacity crowd of 20,504.

Seconds after he stepped into the match, DC were awarded a free kick. Rooney snatched up the ball, confidently lining it up as he had done hundreds of times before. It was a bold move, perhaps, given the circumstances, but he is Wayne Rooney and the determination with which he set up the kick seemed to ignite something in his team-mates.

The night felt like it was divided into two parts: the game before Rooney entered and the game afterwards.

"It's great to have young players around you and also I feel like I can bring a lot of experience to help them, which I felt very strongly in the last 30 minutes," Rooney said in his post-match press conference.

If Everton did not want him any more, which he has implied in his public comments since arriving in Washington, United need him. His arrival comes at a tricky time for the franchise.

Once, one of the MLS' most-dominant teams, with four championships in their first nine seasons, United have struggled in the years since. They came into Saturday's game bottom of the Eastern Conference, a record partially blamed on the fact the fact they played all but two of their matches on the road, while they waited for Audi Field to be completed.

Even the stadium's opening has been controversial. United's most vocal supporters group, Barra Brava, protested outside, angry about a new team policy that named a mostly-white suburban fan club as the team's primary supporters over Barra Brava's heavily Latino membership.

Without Barra Brava, the crowd was noticeably quieter than in United's old home, RFK Stadium, which felt odd because the biggest selling point of the new stadium is that it was built to generate noise.

It almost seemed as if Rooney is not only being asked to adopt to a league whose quality is far below the one he has left behind, he is also expected to mentor a young team and heal a fractured fan base. A lot to ask of any star player but especially of one who has never seemed comfortable with being the face of any endeavour.

Still, he has gone to every public speaking engagement, visited fans and posed for pictures. He has been, so far, the leader United hoped for.

"I've said since I came here two weeks ago I want to win," Rooney said. "I'm vocal on and off the pitch. Vocal with the coach. Vocal with my team-mates. We speak about which is the best way to win a football match. And next week might be completely different. I think the most important thing is communication, both with myself and with the players."

He said this with the hint of a smile. He had tried to make Saturday as normal a match day as possible, lying in bed watching England play Belgium in the third-place play-off in the morning, taking a midday walk, preparing to play.

He seemed happy. Fulfilled. This could have been awkward for him, England's all-time leading goalscorer far removed from his country's best World Cup in a quarter of a century. He shook his head.

"A great tournament for England as a country and for the fans," he said.

He was still wearing his DC United shirt, one that still looks strange on him. Washington is a long way from Moscow. It is a long way from Manchester and Liverpool, too. DC United need him. It turns out he may need them too.