Wayne Rooney, a new home and renewed belief: inside D.C. United's remarkable turnaround
In 2017, D.C. United finished last in the Eastern Conference, seven points behind 10th-place Orlando City and a distant 18 points out of the playoffs. The team's minus-29 goal differential led the league as United earned just 0.94 points per game.
It seemed to represent rock bottom for one of Major League Soccer's founding franchises, but at the beginning of 2018, someone threw the club a shovel.
Through the season's first 17 games, United posted just three wins and five draws to go along with nine losses. Fourteen points from 17 games, or a dismal 0.82 points per game. Simply put, the team wasn't good enough.
"What was lacking throughout that was killer instinct," head coach Ben Olsen told ESPN FC. "Seeing out games on the offensive end and in transition or being able to grind out the last 15 minutes of matches. Understanding the big moments of the game that mattered. We failed consistently in those moments."
But the thing about digging yourself into a hole is that sometimes you can do something great with all that dirt. You can be building something, even if no one is watching. United were.
"Even during that time when we were not getting the results that we wanted, we saw a lot of good, not only in the individuals we had on the team but also how we were playing and in our ability to manufacture goals," Olsen said.
Center back Steven Birnbaum agreed with his manager. "Toward the end of our road stretch, there was a bit more confidence," he said. "We started to jell. We had a lot of new players and it took time for us to get to know one another."
The project took form and United took off. The team is on a ridiculous streak of eight wins, two defeats and three draws since July 25, and 4-0-2 since the beginning of September. During its current six-game unbeaten streak, Olsen's club knocked off MLS Cup contenders Atlanta United and a Montreal Impact team above it in the standings while tying the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. United currently sit two points behind the Impact for the sixth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot with two games in hand on the Canadian club. (Ed. - DC United defeated FC Dallas on Saturday to move into sixth place)
A few things changed to spark this run. First, United went home. After playing 13 of their first 17 games on the road, they've since had 10 of 13 in the friendly confines of Audi Field. After years in the cavernous RFK Stadium, it's quite a change. "The stands are right on top of you," said Birnbaum. "A little over 20,000 people. The stands are steep. They are cheering the whole time. We build off the crowd. And they make it for us."
Oh, and a certain English superstar arrived.
In 16 games since joining Major League Soccer, Wayne Rooney has nine goals and seven assists -- not a bad return for the 32-year-old attacker. But his work, ability and experience might have made more difference on a young United squad.
"The contagious aspect of making the right play is understated in his influence on our group," said Olsen. "When your most influential player is making the right play that rubs off on a lot of other players. We weren't going to get worse with Wayne Rooney coming to the team. But his ability to elevate others around him, that's what I've been extremely impressed with."
Birnbaum cited the game against Orlando City -- a ridiculous 3-2 comeback win in which Rooney sprinted half the field to prevent an open-net goal before lacing a cross-field pass that found the head of Luciano Acosta for the game winner -- as a turning point. "We went on to win the next two games after that," he said. "We picked up nine points in one week, more than we had on the road for the majority of the year already. It was like, 'All right, this is the real deal and we have a chance to push for the playoffs.'
"I think [Rooney has] raised the level of everyone in our locker room. You want to play for him. The level has risen since Wayne got there. The guys put it all out there in training."
But a new field and a new superstar weren't the only changes. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid returned, solidifying United between the posts. Freed from having to carry too much weight and emboldened by adding a second defensive midfielder into the mix, Yamil Asad, Ulises Segura, Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno transformed into one of the toughest ball-winning midfields in the league. Joseph Mora locked down the left-back spot.
The biggest beneficiary, however, might be Acosta. The 24-year-old Argentine showed well in his first two seasons, posting eight goals and 16 assists before exploding in 2018. The reigning Player of the Month has nine goals and a league-leading 16 assists. He and Rooney developed an almost instantaneous chemistry, accounting for eight of the team's 14 goals in September.
Two months ago, United were another afterthought suffering through another wasted year. Now, they are a team on the rise. The club needs only to look to the 2016 Seattle Sounders to see a squad that was buried in the summer only to rebound and go on to take home MLS Cup. But first, United have to make the postseason.
"We have a long way to go," said Olsen. "We have a month of intense games. Getting above the line is a real challenge. We keep winning but so do other teams. We keep chasing it, with every game being in some ways the most important game of the year. Now Dallas is the most important game of the year that we need to win. And then there will be another one against Toronto. It's a little bit of the bed we made because of our record.
"It's been a lot of fun to be on this run right now and be in the conversation."