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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

MLS play-offs: Wayne Rooney leading an American revolution at DC United

England's record goalscorer has revived his career since a summer switch from Everton, taking DC United to the play-offs

Wayne Rooney's arrival at DC United has seen them go from basement dwellers to the play-offs. Reuters
Wayne Rooney's arrival at DC United has seen them go from basement dwellers to the play-offs. Reuters

When Wayne Rooney quit the Premier League to join Major League Soccer outfit DC United in June, it looked like England’s record goalscorer was being put out to pasture.

The move back to his boyhood heroes Everton from Manchester United in 2017 had not panned out as hoped and, despite a respectable 10 goals in 31 appearances, Rooney decided he did not want to be a “dead weight” under a new manager and left the club for a second time.

The side he joined, on a three-and-a-half year deal worth US$15 million (Dh55m), raised even more eyebrows. DC were bottom of the Eastern Conference and widely considered the worst team in the league.

And yet, on Thursday (Friday morning UAE), they take on Columbus Crew at Audi Field, the first MLS play-off game to be held at their new home ground.

When Rooney arrived, DC had taken 11 points from their first 14 games, winning just twice. They had also finished the 2017 season bottom of the table.

Once a superpower in the MLS, winning three out of the first four MLS Cups when the league reformed in 1996, the club had fallen on stony ground and had no reputation for the big-name signings made by their big-city rivals in New York and Los Angeles.

But the Rooney revolution was instant and remarkable. By the end of the conference season, DC had hauled themselves up to fourth after taking 51 points from 34 matches, winning 14. The Liverpool-born attacker had scored 12 goals and provided seven assists.

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Rooney, who turned 33 last week, had sounded almost exasperated when questioned about his age when signing for the club. “It’s actually quite young in some ways,” he said. “But for some reason ... people seem to think I’m an old man.”

It is easy to understand why people would make that mistake. He has been part of the English football psyche for so long, making his debut for Everton in 2002, age 16, and earning his first cap for the national team the following year.

After 16 years at football’s top table, surely a move to America was a sign of Rooney taking his foot off the pedal?

Not according to the man himself, who told The Washington Post: “I understand people get frustrated when they see players coming over here maybe a bit late in their career. But that’s for me to show with performances that I’m not here just to be on holiday. I’m here to work.”

In his third match for DC, against Colorado Rapids in his first start as captain, Rooney scored and also broke his nose – needing five stitches in a nasty cut. DC manager Ben Olsen said afterwards: “It shows you what this means to him. He is in the box, putting his face on the line.”

Against Orlando City, Rooney produced a last-ditch sliding tackle to prevent an almost certain goal, followed by an inch-perfect 40-yard-plus "hail mary" cross-field pass for Luicano Acosta to head home a last-gasp winner. Olsen was again full of praise: “Incredible skill by Wayne. Selfless play. That’s what type of guy he is. He has elevated our group in a lot of ways.”

Rooney produced a stunning 30-yard free kick to clinch victory against Toronto FC – showing that his ability for scoring spectacular goals had followed him across the Atlantic.

He scored two goals against Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact and finally New York City FC, a win that helped DC secure a play-off spot with a game to spare.

Rooney’s attacking partnership with Acosta has been crucial. The 24-year-old Argentine, who has assisted the most goals in the MLS this season with 17, calls him “senor Wayne” and Olsen believes he is one of the players who has really benefitted from the former England captain’s arrival.

Defender Steven Birnbaum was also in no doubt whose influence was now driving the team. He said Rooney “demands a lot from people. He’s a winner and people see he is giving us the push we need.”

Their 18-year-old midfielder Chris Durkin, who used to have pictures of Rooney pinned up on his bedroom wall, told The New York Times that he was “trying to be like a sponge and listen to every single thing he says”.

Rooney has not shied away from his responsibilities as DC’s most expensive signing, playing a captain’s role , telling TV show Men in Blazers: “I don’t want special treatment. I want to be treated the same as the other players ... it’s not rocket science.”

His commitment to the DC cause is clear and he will not be seeking a loan move back to Europe – as his old teammate David Beckham did from LA Galaxy to AC Milan in 2009 and 2010 – once this season is over. He told ESPN FC: “I don’t think it would be right for me to fly back and forth to play on loan at another team.”

In England, he won every honour , including the Fifa Club World Cup, Uefa Champions League, Europa League, five Premier League titles, the FA Cup Cup and three League Cups.

It should be no surprise to anyone if there is an MLS Cup winner’s medal sitting in the Rooney trophy cabinet very soon.