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‘We want Rooney’: The impact of Wayne Rooney at D.C. United

Jul 14, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney (center) celebrates with teammates Yamil Asad (left) and Luciano Acosta (right) against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON — “We want Rooney. We want Rooney. We want Rooney.”

The culmination of D.C. United’s two-week whirlwind Wayne Rooney marketing campaign hit a peak in the 56th minute of Saturday’s 3-1 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Fans around the newly-minted Audi Field chanted: “We want Rooney.”

Days before Rooney trained with the rest of United’s first team, during his first official press conference as a member of United, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proclaimed July 2, 2018 Wayne Rooney day.

“When stadium employees, fans, press and teammates begin to fill into Audi Field for the first time, the energy coursing throughout the new home for D.C. United will be combined with the great excitement of Wayne Rooney,” Bowser said. “D.C. United fans here in D.C. and throughout our region anticipate following Wayne and watching him lead us to championships for years to come.”

Media coverage of Rooney was unprecedented for a club far removed from its championship-winning years. But for his new teammates, United tried to maintain the mentality that Rooney is “just another guy,” midfielder Paul Arriola said.

The reaction Saturday on and off the pitch to Rooney’s first minutes for United proved that no matter how humble he is, Rooney is far from “just another guy” in United’s locker room.

The atmosphere

“We want Rooney. We want Rooney. We want Rooney.”

After 1 year, 4 months and 17 days of construction, Audi Field opened its doors to groups of fans, community members and people eager to see Rooney’s MLS debut.

The opening of Audi Field wasn’t perfect. Beyond the luxurious initial appeal, Audi Field, like United, is still a work in progress.

Luckily, for both club and stadium, they have a veteran soccer legend at the helm.

Audi Field was noticeably quiet during periods of Saturday’s match. The celebration after Yamil Asad’ goal only lasted a few minutes.

“[The crowd] got there,” Olsen said. “It took a couple goals to get that building rocking.”

That all changed with the sight of Rooney.

The loudest cheers in the first half came from the southeast corner of the stadium. On two separate occasions, Rooney made his way over to the end of the field, and each time the crowd closest to the forward erupted in applause. It was an applause for simply warming up.

Fans watch as English soccer player Wayne Rooney arrives at Dulles International Airport June 28, 2018 in Dulles, Virginia. / AFP PHOTO / ZACH GIBSON

Those cheers reverberated around the stadium the second Rooney stepped beside assistant coach Chad Ashton to receive direction to enter the match. 

It wasn’t the goals that awoke the crowd, it was the debut of someone who is more than “just another guy.”

“It was a great atmosphere,” Rooney said. “The stadium is built for atmosphere, but at the end of the day we have to create the atmosphere on the pitch. We have to excite the fans. We cannot expect the fans to make noise if we aren’t exciting them.”

Rooney debuted with Everton FC at 16 years old, made a career out of exciting the crowds at Old Trafford and captured a nation’s attention. He knows how to make an entrance.

The players

“We want Rooney. We want Rooney. We want Rooney.”

Despite his age of 32, Rooney’s muscles and mind are still sharp enough to share glimpses of his Old Trafford days on the American pitch.

“The speed of play here when these guys come over who have been playing at the level they have been playing [in Europe], [MLS] is a touch slow. They exploit [the game] with their brains,” Olsen said. “[Rooney] is a high quality, elite soccer player. It looked like the game was a bit slow for him, and I don’t think he lost the ball once.”

While Rooney may be past the glory days of his career, he is surrounded at United by a group of players that are just beginning their professional careers.

“The players might look to me as someone who has a career with Manchester United, Everton and England,” Rooney said. “Maybe they are not yet to that level, and hopefully they do get there, but I am a D.C. United player, and I am exactly like the other players.”

The average age of D.C. United’s starting XI Saturday, which didn’t include Rooney, was 26. Three of the attacking midfielders that played behind Rooney were 23 years old or younger.

“We are still a young team. People don’t talk about how young we are,” Olsen said. “Not only the soccer aspect, but the mentality that [Rooney] will bring to elevate some of our young guys through his habits, through his experience … is invaluable.”

Jul 14, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney (9) celebrates with midfielder Luciano Acosta (10) after a goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The youth of D.C. United is both a strength and a challenge. In the past United has been able to score first, but was unable to maintain that lead throughout the 90 minutes. Rooney’s appearance with 30 minutes left in the match gave the spark and mature presence United needed to extend its lead and maintain three points.

“To be honest, I have not played with players of the caliber of Rooney,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “This is obviously a first. The club did a good job of finding someone like Rooney who is very humble and team oriented.”

The future

“We want Rooney. We want Rooney. We want Rooney.”

Olsen is proud of his open door policy at the club. If a player wants to talk or share ideas, Olsen is open to listening, which also applies to Rooney.

“[I could lean on Wayne] quite a lot. I would be silly not to,” Olsen said. “I am always looking to learn and get better myself. We have plenty of dialogue. [Rooney] seems to relish in the fact that I am going to be an open coach and that I am open to ideas that he thinks will benefit this club.”

Now that United has Rooney, the next step is finding consistency and finding it fast. The win Saturday was United’s third win of the season, and the club is still in last place with 19 games left in the regular season.

Tactically, Rooney can provide that vision on the field and make in-game decisions to help the players around him.

“I am vocal on and off the pitch,” Rooney said. “We speak, which is the best way to win a football match. Next week may be completely different in how we prepare for the game. The most important thing is communication.”

Rooney is far from “just another guy,” and despite harsh criticism when rumors of his transfer surfaced, D.C. wants Rooney.

What does Rooney want?

“I want to win.”

Former D.C. United player Sean Franklin’s first game against former side coincides with Audi Field opening

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