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D.C. United playoff push begins Wayne Rooney’s final run

Rooney will depart D.C. after the 2019 season. First, United hopes to advance to the MLS Cup final.

D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney makes final run in MLS. (Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)

WASHINGTON — Last summer, Wayne Rooney launched D.C. United into the stratosphere on and off the field. Now, Rooney faces his final stretch in the nation’s capital before an unexpected early end to his tenure with United.

A little more than a year after inking the three-and-a-half year deal with United, Rooney announced he would head back to England to join English Championship team Derby County as a player-coach. The move came amidst news that his wife, Coleen, was homesick. She and the couple’s four boys moved back to England during the 2019 season.

With one last run before his departure, United and Rooney have their eyes set on an MLS Cup final after falling in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.

“I am still hoping we can change his mind and make him stay,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we haven’t won a trophy yet with him. That is the goal right now. We have to focus solely on that.”

The first step on the path to winning that trophy comes Saturday on the road against a Toronto FC side that is in good form. The road became a little bumpier on decision day when United failed to secure the fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference — and a home playoff game — against league-worst FC Cincinnati, who were reduced to nine men for 45 minutes.

Rooney missed the regular-season finale due to suspension from yellow card accumulation but is expected to be fit to contribute against Toronto.

“I feel fresh. Sometimes the break can help you,” Rooney said. “I have been in training every day. I feel good.”

Since announcing his departure, Rooney has played 344 out of a possible 810 minutes. A reported upper respiratory illness, a two-game suspension from a red card and the final-day yellow card suspension contributed to his lack of playing time.

Despite the rough landing, Rooney’s time at United was an instant boost for the club. In 2018, he took D.C. from last place in the Eastern Conference in July to fourth place and the first playoff game at the new Audi Field. The Englishman was a highlight reel magnet: a come-from-behind sprint to assist the winning goal against Orlando City in 2018, free kick strikes hit with precision and a 2019 goal of the year candidate with a half-field chip.

The on-field production was obvious, but Rooney also made an impact on the players, coaches and staff at United that will last long after he crosses the Atlantic for the last time.

“On the field, he has helped us in a big way. Off the field, I think he has pushed me, made me a better coach, a better manager,” Ben Olsen said. “I think he has been a very good teammate and an ambassador for the club.”

Being in America did not stop the British tabloids from following Rooney. He was the subject of a few negative spotlights, including an intoxicated incident at Dulles International Airport as well as stories involving pictures of him with women at bars. Despite the off-field chatter, Rooney has undoubtedly been a catalyst for United’s new stadium, the launch of its USL Championship affiliate, Loudoun United, and a new era of the club spending money on big-name designated players.

For Olsen, who has been a part of Major League Soccer as a player and coach with United for 21 years, Rooney has shared new insight into soccer at the top levels.

“He is a very knowledgeable guy, whether it is the locker room dynamics, but also tactically,” Olsen said. “Picking his brain and discussing what we are doing internally, there is always a lot of fruitful dialogue.”

While the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs mark the beginning of the end of a short but eventful chapter for Rooney, the journey isn’t over yet. United travels north to fourth-seeded Toronto FC at BMO Field this Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.

“The chapter isn’t closed, and that is exciting because he has been a big plus for this club,” Olsen said.

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