By: Joe Pohoryles
English soccer legend Wayne Rooney brought a new wave of excitement to the DC United fanbase upon agreeing to a three-and-a-half-year deal with the club sitting toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference back in July 2018.
His skill, pedigree and hard work reinvigorated the team, and he was the driving force behind a slow ascent into a playoff position. The team was knocked out in the first round of the 2018 playoffs by the Columbus Crew in penalty kicks, but optimism was high for 2019 at the newly-opened Audi Field.
Rooney and breakout star Luciano Acosta formed a lethal pair, and both were named to the 2018 MLS Best XI, recognizing the best players in the league. With these two leading the charge, DC seemed capable of winning their fifth MLS Cup, their first since 2004. They started 2019 off strong by taking down the reigning-champion Atlanta United 2-0 in the season-opener, and quickly rose to first place in the Eastern Conference.
Then it all fell apart.
Before the season, Luciano Acosta’s transfer to French superpower Paris Saint-Germain fell through at the last second, even after Acosta completed his physical. The fallout impacted his morale, and his form declined with it. He was not the same player in 2019.
Then the other dominoes began to fall. The team’s form stagnated, drawing and losing matches more often than winning.
Then on Aug. 6, 2019, Rooney announced that at the conclusion of the season, he would return to England to be the player-coach of Derby County in EFL Championship, the tier below the Premier League. With two years remaining on his contract, he left early because he and his family missed England, and he wanted to transition to a coaching career. DC’s star player had one foot out the door entering the playoffs.
Rooney and Acosta’s final game with DC United was a 5-1 extra time loss to Toronto FC in the first round of the playoffs. It was 1-1 after 90 minutes; the team allowed four goals in extra time.
It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the Rooney era. The team had a lot of hope behind it, slowly building into a contender, it appeared winning it all could be a reality. Then, out of no where, at the tail end, one thing goes wrong, then another, and another, then the whole thing falls apart. You’re just left sitting there wondering, “That’s… it? That’s how it’s ending? It seems like it’s over before it really got started.”
Rooney left the team with some great memories, like the sequence of the year to set up a last-gasp, game-winner for Acosta against Orlando City SC on Aug. 12, 2018. Take a moment to click the link and watch… yeah, even if you don’t watch soccer, that’s awesome stuff. He was not just here to collect a paycheck.
But now that is all in the past, and the team is making moves to start a new era.
The club recently signed Edison Flores from Liga MX to fill the Designated Player spot. The Peruvian international represented his country in the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Copa America, in which Peru made the finals. The 25-year-old midfielder had 12 goals and six assists across the past two seasons for his club, Morelia, and instantly becomes a top three player for the club, if not the best.
He will have to help make up for what the team is losing in Rooney and Acosta. Such an important move signifies DC is trying the Atlanta United model: build the team through less expensive, under-the-radar South American talents in the peak of their prime, as opposed to the traditional format of signing aging, world-renowned stars to monster contracts and relying solely on them.
After Rooney’s departure, the club was linked to the likes of Mesut Özil, Daniel Sturridge and Luka Modrić, all European stars, all extremely expensive, all on (or near) a decline.
Sturridge would actually make the most sense. At 30, he’s the youngest of the three, though he should be the cheapest, and the team is in need of offensive production, something Sturridge should provide as a striker. Once a starter on Premier League power Liverpool, injuries derailed his career, and at the tail-end of his stint with Liverpool, he got into a bit of legal trouble.
He’s now playing for Turkish side, Trabzonspor, and has four goals and four assist in nine league appearances. That type of production should translate to MLS play, but with Flores now holding the DP spot, it seems unlikely that signing any of those three players will occur.
That may be for the best. Atlanta won the 2018 MLS Cup employing their strategy and remain a league power. Perhaps if DC strikes gold in Flores and continues to find solid players, DC can join them.
For now, they’ll just have to wait and see.
(Cover Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated (si.com))