The last time the New York Red Bulls faced longtime rival D.C. United, Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the lone goal, becoming the fastest player in league history to reach 100 regular season goals and New York left the District of Columbia with a third consecutive victory.
It was Chis Armas’ fourth game in charge since taking over midseason for Jesse Marsch and he’s coached five games since that encounter a month ago.
“We didn’t lose on the road in three games, which we take a lot of positives from,” Armas told reporters after training Friday at Red Bull Arena. “We feel like this time against NYCFC, we’re a different team than we were last time. I think the first half spoke loudly about that and I do think we’re a different team now than when D.C. saw us.”
So, too, is D.C. That game was Wayne Rooney’s third in Major League Soccer since signing as a Designated Player on June 28. He came off the bench for 33 minutes in search of equalizer while working his way back to full fitness.
Rooney has started five games since and it’s no coincidence D.C. United are 4-0-1 during that stretch and come to Red Bull Arena Sunday night having won three consecutive games.
“He makes their team better, to say the least, and you’ve seen that in the last couple of weeks now that he’s able to play that full 90 [minutes] and get them going a little bit more,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “One thing you hear a lot around their locker room is guys don’t want to let him down. He’s obviously such a big player and they haven’t let him down, they’ve been playing so well.”
The goals Rooney scores — he has three in eight appearances, including two in a 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers two weeks ago — are what make the highlights. But it’s his drifting back into the midfield to be more of a playmaker that has made D.C. United (7-9-6) a better squad.
“I think they look more confident,” midfielder Danny Royer said. “Of course, he’s a great player. I think he can keep the ball, he’s a smart guy, he’s a strong guy, a good battler. I think when he keeps the ball it gives the wingers and their No. 10 more time … to open up the spaces and to find dangerous spots. He’s a great passer as well. I think that’s one point sometimes don’t mention. He’s not giving a lot of balls, he’s not losing a lot of balls. He’s actually a great passer and can set up plays really well.”
Rooney’s role with D.C. United is not dissimilar to what he’s shown throughout his career at Everton and Manchester United. It’s also something the Red Bulls (15-6-4) saw in the midweek from NYCFC captain David Villa.
“You have to understand where he operates, but knowing the minute you take that away he’s slashing behind,” Armas said. “Guys like this, guys like David Villa, need one play to make a difference and they’re always a threat, so we’ll have to understand all the areas which he operates.”
Rooney’s emergence and opponents’ plan to limit his time and space means a bit more freedom for Luciano Acosta, D.C. United’s true No. 10. Acosta has scored four of his five goals this season in the last four games Rooney has been in the starting XI.
“He adds a unique dynamic,” Adams said. “I think for him dropping back into the midfield is something he’s always been good at and being able to launch passes either out wide or forward has kind of pushed Acosta a lot higher and he’s able to have that freedom now to just link up with Rooney wherever he is on the field. It will be important to keep track of those guys wherever they go.”