WASHINGTON — Cameras flashed, fans chanted and officers controlled the circus-like crowd as the ringleader of the airport frezy, Wayne Rooney, deplaned at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
The career leading goalscorer for the English men’s national team made his first D.C. United appearance hours after MLS officially announced an agreement to put him in the Black-and-Red for the next three-and-a-half years. The deal to bring the Premier League Everton F.C. star stateside is worth a reported $13 million, according to the Washington Post.
“United have reached an agreement to sign English International Wayne Rooney from Everton F.C. on a permanent transfer and signed him to a three-and-a-half year Designated Player contract upon completion of the International Transfer Certificate,” the official team statement said.
While the airport buzzed with excitement, 33 miles east the air was heavy with the humidity of a typical summer day in Washington, D.C. On an ordinarily quiet morning at RFK Auxiliary Fields, the only sign of media mania surrounding United’s newest member was a single ITV reporter with a large broadcast camera.
Upon arrival, players said their normal hellos to the sparse number of media attending the first 10 minutes of allotted open training and then quietly went about their daily business. United, who currently sit last in the league standings, worked on regeneration movements. Their focus is on their next match on Saturday, June 30 against the New England Revolution.
After training, United midfielder Paul Arriola made his way down the long, dimly lit hallway to the makeshift media room. Sat upon an old armchair, he shared his thoughts on his newest teammate and the road ahead at United’s new home, Audi Field in Southwest Washington.
“[Rooney] is my teammate, and we are hopefully going to have a great connection and work to achieve things together. That is how the team is seeing it. He is just another player,” Arriola said. “I see it as an opportunity to play and to learn from a top player in our world.”
The other Designated Player
United is the latest team in MLS to add a major international name to its roster, but a signing of this magnitude is a first for the club in recent history. Rooney will occupy the second of United’s three Designated Player roster spots.
Every MLS team is awarded three DP roster slots. These players do not count against the team’s salary cap, which allows teams to explore more lucrative deals like United’s Rooney acquisition.
Rooney checks all the boxes for a current model DP: he is foreign; he spent most of his career in a major league of great magnitude; and he is, what critics would say, past his prime.
“Wayne is undoubtedly one of the best players in Premier League history, and his goal scoring record for club and country speaks for itself,” Dave Kasper, United general manager and VP of soccer operations, said in the team’s official press release. “We are beyond excited to add someone of Rooney’s caliber, and we are thrilled to welcome him to D.C.”
United’s other DP, U.S. national team member Paul Arriola, is quite the contrary.
“Young DPs are a great way to continue to push the league and continue to push the level that so many people criticize and question about MLS,” Arriola said. “That is why I chose to come to D.C. and take the opportunity to be a young player in this league pushing it forward.”
United acquired him from Liga MX side Club Tijuana in Mexico in August of last year. At the time, United was looking for a fresh start as they stretched toward the opening of Audi Field. Now just weeks away, United will play two more away games before coming home to a new stadium and a new number 9 in Rooney.
“I don’t know [Rooney] yet, but I expect him to be a very humble guy and a guy that is going to come in here to work because that is how he has been his entire career,” Arriola said. “He is a hard working player, which is something I pride myself on. That is how I describe myself.”
Arriola has recently taken up residence in the center of the United midfield. From this position, the pairing of Rooney and Arriola is inevitable.
“It is important for everyone, especially the younger guys and attacking-minded players, to really absorb his presence and the player that he is and what he is done in the past,” Arriola said. “In the beginning it might be a little bit shocking, but we are all professionals on the same team, and we are all trying to achieve the same thing together.”
MLS is still growing. For every signing that flops — like Frank Lampard at NYCFC or Steven Gerrard at LA Galaxy — there is a signing that shines — like Kaka at Orlando City SC or David Villa at NYCFC. The balance of young and old could help carry the league forward.
“I look at someone with a workrate like Rooney, and think about how when I am 32, I want to still have that workrate,” Arriola said. “When you are on the field, age doesn’t matter. It matters a little, but it is more important for us to focus on the season and improve. Hopefully it will be the young DP finding the old DP to finish plays and win games.”
No pressure, no diamonds
In 2012, amidst the forlorn sports climate of the city, Washington’s (other) football team selected quarterback Robert Griffin Jr. III with the second over pick in the National Football League draft from Baylor University. Griffin had an immediate impact, a successful season, a horrific injury that eventually lead to the end of his time in Washington. With the weight of a city desperate to return to a championship, RG3 recited the mantra “no pressure, no diamonds.”
Although United collected its fourth league title in 2004, a fourth Supporters’ Shield in 2007, a third Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title in 2013 and a sixth conference championship in 2014, Rooney bares similar pressure to that of RG3.
United is long removed from its glory days and has struggled in recent years to find success, press and momentum. Taking on heavy criticism, United pointed to the need for a new home as the answer. United finally have that new home and are at the a crucial precipice looking down at a steep task of 15 home games in three months, last place in the league and continuing rifts with supporter groups.
“Moving to America and MLS fulfills another career ambition for me,” Rooney said in the team’s press release. “I have the hunger to be a success here and will give D.C. 100 percent – as I have always done for every team I have ever played for.”
After starting his career at age 16 with his hometown team Everton, Rooney broke out as a star for one of the world’s most famous clubs. Rooney then played 13 seasons for Manchester United, scoring 183 goals from 2004-2017 before returning to Everton last season. In addition to his 208 Premier League goals, Rooney is the top goal scorer for the English national team. He retired from international soccer two years ago.
“I expect him to come in here and do the work and be selfless,” Arriola said. “As a professional soccer player, you are in the one percent of the population of talent, but then you get the 0.01 percent of players like Wayne.”
Rooney may not shoulder all of that weight, but as one of the biggest, most expensive signings in club history, the pressure is on the Liverpool native as he leaves the comfort of England for the first time.
United has only won two games this season. The club has scored 19 goals and conceded 26. Midway through the MLS season, United need to find a streak and find it fast for a legitimate run a the playoffs.
“We have an opportunity. We have to win,” Arriola siad. “When we started this season, we knew we were going to be on the road, but I was very confident that we would be able to pick up points away. The way that we have played this year is completely different style than last year when I arrived, specifically playing away.”
Rooney will officially join the roster following the opening of the MLS secondary transfer window on July 10. Although he failed to score since December of last year, Rooney will likely be a on United’s game-day roster on July 14 at the opening of Audi Field. It will be an introduction fit for a legend.
“The spotlight brings a certain type of pressure, not just to him, but to the team,” Arriola said. “It has always helped me when there is more pressure.”
From coverage across the pond to TMZ airport ambushes here in the states, Rooney has undoubtedly brought attention to a team that has otherwise flown under the D.C. sports radar.
“In the spotlight, a good player turns into a better player. That is the exciting part that comes with him,” Arriola said. “If it is a circus, we will be right there to provide the show.”