By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 14, 2022) US Soccer Players – Almost exactly four years after he’d arrived as the showcase attacking acquisition for the long-awaited move into the then-new stadium, DC United unveiled Wayne Rooney as its new head coach. Both then and now, the Black-and-Red hovered near the bottom of the MLS standings, in need of inspiration. What’s different is that July 2018’s suffering was expected.
DC was paying dues in the countdown to a new era with high hopes fueled by a backloaded schedule and a world superstar signing who would prove capable of sparking improvement in everyone around him. Today, there’s more frustration and concern. Rooney is being asked to revitalize the organization again, this time with both force of personality and systemic repair.
“He is an icon and he’s a leader in the game, worldwide. And so that’s naturally going to attract interest and attention and I think that’s only positive for the club,” said United general manager and head of technical recruitment and analysis Lucy Rushton. “Twofold, in terms of getting people to come to the games, but also attracting players to want to come and play for us. So it’s a massive deal for the club, it really is. It’s going to help take us to the next level.”
The Columbus Crew offered a glimpse of what structure graced with elite talent can do when it visited the following night. After building a sturdy tactical toolkit under coach Caleb Porter, the addition of pricey playmaker Lucas Zelarayan proved the capstone in the run to the 2021 MLS Cup championship. This summer another record-breaking acquisition, striker Cucho Hernandez from Watford, is billed as a similarly influential reinforcement.
Sure enough, Zelarayan fed the razor-sharp Hernandez for both of the Crew’s goals in a 2-2 draw that United controlled more of. Rooney can’t officially coach his new team until he completes the work visa process, so he was a bystander at suite level, getting a fuller picture of the work needed. While his relationships and reputation may help DC recruit high-caliber signings, getting the most out of the current roster will also be vital. It’s a test for a 36-year-old coach in just his second coaching job.
Simultaneously building a foundation and staunching the bleeding is no small task. United leadership admitted that last week’s painful 7-0 rout at the hands of the Philadelphia Union, the most lopsided loss in club history, stoked the sense of urgency to secure Rooney’s services. According to the MLSPA’s numbers, the Union actually spend less on salaries than DC. Yet their clear ethos of academy-driven talent cultivation and high, hard pressing has made them a consistent contender on a level that United can only aspire to for the moment.
At the same time United and the Crew were playing in DC, Philly was defeating Inter Miami in Fort Lauderdale. The first-place Union had completed the permanent acquisition of previously-on-loan Julian Carranza from Miami just in time for the young striker to be available against his former team.
Here was a particularly MLS-style show of strength. A “team is the star” club demonstrated how to make good use of a prospect Miami had paid millions of dollars to acquire but were unable to fully unlock. The sanctions imposed on Miami last year for breaking roster rules helped force them to move Carranza along, and the Union were all too willing to take advantage. As spendy, flashy, and headline-grabbing as Inter Miami has been since conception, blue-collar Philly presently sits ten places above them in the standings.
Inter is learning, though. This week they welcome Alejandro Pozuelo after pulling off a savvy trade with Toronto FC. The free-spending Canadian club found themselves needing to move one high-salary Designated Player in order to accommodate a new one, Italian winger Federico Bernardeschi. Here it was Miami’s chief soccer officer and sporting director Chris Henderson who was all too willing to take advantage of that leverage. Pozuelo cost Miami a modest package of allocation money that pales in comparison to what it would usually take to secure such a player on the open market. Inter is building a more balanced roster, something that should give Herons fans hope for the future even if the losses mount in the near term.
Toronto too has dealt with that over the years and has repeatedly spent over the odds in hopes of speeding up the rebuild process. A well-crafted plan was still necessary to provide structure under the sizzle. DC needs both. That’s asking a lot of a young coach, but Rooney possesses an exceptional soccer mind and an understandable desire to someday manage at the sport’s highest levels. That drive could be what sets DC United on a trajectory towards once again becoming an Eastern Conference power.
More from Charles Boehm:
- MLS rivalries of choice in 2022
- The US U-20s aim to break an Olympic slump
- MLS and the nation’s capital
- The USMNT’s engine room evolution
Photo by Tony Quinn – ISIPhotos.com