Mr. Rooney goes to Washington

Earlier this month, Wayne Rooney joined D.C. United in Major League Soccer (MLS), having been sold by Everton FC. of the English Premier League (EPL). Rooney is the all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and the English national team, and is second on the all-time Premier League scoring list. (The EPL commenced in 1992).

Yesterday, Rooney debuted for D.C. United in the first game ever played at the club’s new Stadium, Audi Field.

Still working to gain full match fitness and acclimate himself to D.C. heat and humidity, Rooney didn’t start the game. He came on as a substitute about ten minutes into the second half.

At the time D.C. United was leading 1-0, but the opponent, Vancouver, was dominating the match and pushing for the equalizing gold. But within 20 minutes of Rooney’s entrance, his team was up 3-0. He assisted on one of the two goals and participated significantly in the buildup to the other. In addition, he was denied a goal on a header by a fine save from the Vancouver goalie.

Rooney oozed class with every touch. He made every player in the D.C. United attack look good and their resulting confidence turned a tight match into an easy victory. You would never have known that the team’s record coming into the contest was 2-7 (with 5 draws).

There has never been much doubt that Rooney’s signing would boost ticket sales at least for a while.
But there was plenty of debate about what his impact on the field would be. Is Rooney all-in on winning or just here to collect a paycheck? Does he have enough left to star in MLS at age 32 playing for a bad team?

Anyone who has followed Rooney closely knows that he’s a fierce competitor and a committed team player. There is no doubt that, if healthy, he will give his all for D.C. United.

And his all remains considerable. Last year, Rooney was one of the better players on a mid-table EPL team. That normally translates into MLS stardom. In fact, being one of the better players on a mid-table team in England’s second tier of football often does.

The problem, though, is that Rooney may be declining faster than a normal 32 year-old player. There are three reasons why this might be the case.

First, Rooney has so much mileage on him. Unlike the average 32 year-old, he has been playing top flight football for half his life. For most of his career, he played not just a full slate of EPL matches, but also deep into the Champions League season, with a heavy dose of international matches, including three World Cups and two European Championships, thrown in.

Second, Rooney hasn’t been a model of clean living.

Third, at 18, Rooney had the body of a 28 year-old. After seeing Rooney play as a teenager, legendary manager Brian Clough said it must have been Rooney’s dad he saw. This doesn’t mean that Rooney has an older than 32 year-old body now, but to me it suggests that he might.

In any case, Rooney’s play seems to have declined rather significantly in the past two years.

Right now, as I said, he still has more than enough left to star in MLS. I expect him to excel next year, too. Beyond that, I’m not so sure. I’m also not sure whether D.C. United, a terrible team for the past few years, will be able to surround Rooney with enough quality players by next season to become a top-notch team during the Rooney window.

Yet last night, an ordinary team suddenly looked extraordinary as soon as Rooney joined them on the field. Maybe the requisite talent is, for the most part, already on the team and just needs a footballing genius to achieve liftoff.

Rooney is still a footballing genius, as he demonstrated once again last night.

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