When Wayne Rooney joined DC United this summer, some folks wondered whether he would play hard or was just in it for the pay check. Others wondered whether he had enough left to make a difference even playing hard.
These people hadn’t been paying attention. Anyone familiar with Rooney’s playing career knows what a fierce competitor he is. And, as I noted here, during the 2017-18 English Premier League season, Rooney was one of the better players on a mid-table Everton team. The better players on a team in England’s second-tier league normally are capable of making a splash in the U.S.
Thus, I had little doubt that, absent an injury, Rooney would make a splash in Major League Soccer. I didn’t think, however, that he would lead DC United into the playoffs this season. The team seemed to be too far under water for that, even with the favorable schedule that lay ahead (thanks to the team playing nearly all of its early games away from home as its new stadium was being prepared to open).
It turns out that Rooney too doubted he could repair United in time to get to this year’s playoffs. Recently, he said:
Realistically, [my goal] was to try to build momentum for next season. Making the playoffs, being so far away, wasn’t a realistic target.
But Rooney’s play has made it realistic and, indeed, almost a reality. With yesterday’s win over Toronto, DC United is very likely to make the playoffs. United is four points ahead of Montreal for the final playoff place, with just two games to play (a win is worth three points, a draw is worth one).
United’s 1-0 victory of Toronto was down to a marvelous free kick by Rooney. From at least 35 yards out, Rooney “bent it like Beckham” (or like Rooney, for that matter), placing a wonder strike in the top corner of the net, out of the reach of Montreal’s despairing goalkeeper. You can watch it below.
The goal was Rooney’s tenth in 18 games (17 of them starts). He also has seven assists.
United has won 11 of these 18 matches. It has lost only four of them.
United is unbeaten in its eight matches since the end of August. Rooney has scored seven goals during this stretch.
But, as has always been the case, Rooney’s biggest contribution is the way he makes the players around him better. The entire lineup benefits from his tenacity on defense and his inspired passing.
The biggest beneficiary has been Luciano Acosta, a 5-foot-3 Argentine who partners with Rooney up front. Before the arrival of “Senor Wayne” (as Acosta calls him), the little man had recorded just one goal (to go with seven assists). But Rooney quickly recognized Acosta as a player who could think inventively at something approaching Rooney’s level. Since forming the partnership, Acosta has scored eight goals (with nine assists).
Assuming United makes the playoff, can it make a deep run? I don’t watch enough non-United games (make that any non-United games) to answer this question.
I suspect the playoffs will prove challenging, inasmuch as United will come in as a low seed (and, of course, will play on the road as much as at home). But I’m pretty sure that no team, no matter how highly seeded, will relish playing Senor Wayne and his inspired teammates. And certainly none will want to concede free kicks anywhere near the goal United is attacking.