Humble beginnings as Wayne Rooney, Audi Field make Major League Soccer debuts
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United was leading the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 midway through the second half, but the inaugural crowd at Audi Field made it clear what -- or rather who -- they wanted.
The chant went up, "We want Rooney! We want Rooney!"
DCU manager Ben Olsen obliged, bringing on new signing Wayne Rooney in the 58th minute to raucous cheers, and the Englishman delivered, notching an assist as well as plenty of sharp touches in a 3-1 win.
"The fans have been fantastic since I arrived in the airport, and then every day meeting fans out in city," said Rooney following the match.
"And then today, as they were chanting, I was just as eager to get on pitch as they were to see me on the pitch."
It was a day that was emotional on multiple fronts.
After spending the previous 22 years at crumbling RFK stadium, the DCU fan base was eager to walk into a venue that the team could call its own. There remain some considerable kinks to work out, especially given that there were multiple incidents of railings becoming dislodged, including one that fell on DCU sideline broadcaster Lindsey Simpson, though DCU staff indicated she wasn't seriously injured.
But for much of the first 58 minutes, the announced crowd of 20,504 had been relatively subdued despite the lead.
Part of that might have been due to an ongoing dispute between DCU and two of its supporters groups, the Barra Brava and the District Ultras, involving among other things the decision to let another group, the Screaming Eagles, handle the allocation of single-game tickets in the supporters section.
The energy in the stadium perked up the moment Rooney took the field, but for Olsen, the move to bring his new forward on was 100 percent practical as opposed to emotional. The match seemed to be slipping away from the Black-and-Red, and Rooney's vast experience was needed to help manage the game. While the former England international didn't get on the score sheet -- his 79th minute header was well saved by Vancouver goalkeeper Brian Rowe -- his effect on United's build-up play was notable. The former Everton and Manchester United star was involved in a 14-pass buildup that ended with Paul Arriola's first goal of the night in the 69th minute, and Rooney then set up the U.S. international again in the 80th to make the game safe.
"I think [Rooney] just makes the right play," said Olsen. "We talk about that, but there's a huge value in that, of making the right play in the right moment, the right weight, with the right quality.
"He's just going to make others around him better. We're still a young team, people don't talk about how young we are, not only in the soccer aspect but the mentality that people bring to elevate some of our guys through his habits, through his experience. It's going to be invaluable."
It may be only one game, but so far the fit between team and player looks to be near perfect. And as simple as it sounds, the success has come down to letting Rooney be Rooney. In this match, that has meant quick touches and sharp link play. A team-first attitude has helped as well, and with DCU still rooted to the foot of the Eastern Conference table, even with the win, that synergy will be critical going forward.
"The club obviously did a real good job of finding someone like Wayne who is very humble, very team-oriented," said Arriola. "For us that's the most important thing."
Rooney started the day much the same as he had throughout his career, eating breakfast in the morning, going for a walk, and relaxing. There was the change of watching England's 2-0 defeat to Belgium in the third-place match of the World Cup, but there were other more striking differences in terms of the emotion of the day.
Rooney said earlier in the week that his previous club, Everton, made it abundantly clear he was no longer wanted. Here the opposite is true, and perhaps more importantly, the love is in the right doses. He's been made to feel welcome, but the attention hasn't been the suffocating kind that he experienced back in England. That may be the biggest reason for optimism that there will be more days like this one.
"I know from foreign players moving to England, it's not so easy to settle in quickly," Rooney said afterward. "But the players have been great, the staff at the club have been great.
"In the city, the people have given me lot of freedom to be me, which hasn't always been the case. I've really enjoyed my time here, but as I say, I'm here to play football and I'm delighted with the win."
Olsen, for his part, doesn't seem overawed by having a player of Rooney's stature in his midst. He acknowledges that there is plenty he can learn from his new forward. Rooney by his own admission is vocal with everyone while at the same time being one of the guys.
"The players might look to me as player who has had a career at Manchester United and England and maybe they've yet to get to that level. Hopefully they will do," he said.
"But I'm a D.C. United player, I'm exactly the same as the players, and I want to win. So what I can bring is my desire to win, and that's every day on the training pitch and every game."
Even if Rooney brings just that, there should be more wins -- and plenty of goals from the Englishman -- to follow.