It didn’t feel right that Wayne Rooney was the first player to take a penalty for D.C. United in the shootout against Columbus Crew. It takes bravery and leadership to put yourself on the to set the tone for everyone else, sure, but Rooney should have been the last of the penalty takers. He should have been the one to decide whether D.C. United advanced. A man that has worked so hard and played with absolute courage throughout his career deserved that.
Instead, he came out first and his shot was saved. Luciano Acosta, Rooney’s strike partner, was blocked as well. Then Nick Deleon, who was shooting in the position that Rooney should have been, had a chance to resuscitate his team with the score at 3-2 in the Crew’s favor, but ballooned the ball over the bar to seal his team’s fate.
Rooney has shown a great level of humility since arriving in the United States. Rather than embracing his distance — on the basis of status and talent — from the other players, he’s done everything to fit in. He turned down luxuries like flying business-class and having his own individual room when the team traveled because he felt that being a part of the group was more effective than separating himself:
“I don’t want special treatment. I want to be treated the same as the players. I’m part of this team. It’s not rocket science. If you come and form relationships with players, and speak to them...I think it’s important. You do that, you can have a big impact on the team.”
When Rooney arrived in D.C., the team was bottom of the Eastern Conference. In his short time before their elimination by the Crew, he scored 12 goals, assisted seven more, revitalized Acosta’s career, took D.C. United to the playoffs, and brought happiness to a group of fans who had become disillusioned by their team.
Summarizing Rooney’s half-season with D.C. United, Roger Bennett wrote: “Like a human defibrillator, Rooney has jolted the locker room with confidence and tenacity. It’s a third act worthy of a mythic hero, and the joy — and humility — Rooney has shown along the way is a reminder that behind the scores and stats, the real thrill of watching sports is the human story of it all.”
For as long as I’ve watched him, Rooney has embodied the story of the mythical hero in one way or another. He was the chosen one. The 16-year-old phenom who ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run with a 30-yard strike. The versatile and sacrificial superstar of Manchester United. The hope and then pride of England. The captain of the Three Lions. The prodigal son of Everton. And now, the savior of D.C. United. Through all of this, he has displayed energy, passion, modesty, tenacity, and heart, all of which has endeared him to countless fans and made him a hero of the people. He has the talent of a superstar but represents the everyman.
There are a few commercials that perfectly capture the heroic myth of Wayne Rooney. In an old Joga TV ad, Rooney was playing a small-sided game at Manchester United’s training facility, and after being frustrated by his goalkeeper’s inability to stop goals, Rooney kicked the keeper out of position and put on the gloves himself. He saved a few goals, and then rolled the ball out and took it forward himself. He beat a few defenders, then passed the ball off to a teammate, who crossed it back in for Rooney, who hit a wonderful volley to score. The ad started off with Eric Cantona, a Manchester United legend, saying:
“I had heart. And I know, without heart, you cannot play.”
The Nike ad “Write the Future” for the 2010 World Cup, showed the possible futures of several players depending on whether they won the World Cup. Rooney was the only forward whose vignette didn’t show him scoring a spectacular goal or doing some mesmerizing skill. His best possible future showed him tracking back and tackling Franck Ribery, who was on the verge of scoring against England. Then Rooney was shown being knighted by the Queen.
That same essence of Rooney that the Nike ad depicted was similar to his most iconic moment so far for D.C. United. Against Orlando United, Rooney sprinted back after a unsuccessful corner and tackled the Orlando attacker to stop a counter-attack after D.C. United’s keeper had gone forward for the corner. Rooney then played a 50-yard diagonal pass for Acosta to head in and win the game.
That moment was Wayne Rooney at his purest. As humble as he’s been in his time in D.C., the story of him as a mythical hero depends on those individual moments of sacrifice, heart and skill. That tackle and pass against Orlando. His game-winning spectacular free-kick against Toronto FC. Rooney can blend in with the rest of the team, and part of what he loves about being in America is that he can anonymous in a way that he couldn’t be in England, but on the field, when the game needs individual heroism, it’s Rooney who has to rise above everyone else. It’s his identity as a player.
The whole game against Columbus Crew, I was waiting for the heroic Rooney to appear, as he had done so many times this season. D.C. United’s first goal came from his free kick, and at the end of the first half of extra-time Rooney had an opportunity to equalize for his team when the ball dropped to him right outside of the crew’s box. But he didn’t shoot. He took a touch to the right and passed it to a teammate instead and the chance was squandered.
When it came to penalty kicks, it seemed like the perfect setting for Rooney to save D.C. United once again. All he had to do was go last. The chance would be there for him to continue the story of his career and his wonderful half-season in MLS. But sometimes reality doesn’t play into the fantasy of the world in our heads.
Rooney’s season with D.C. United was so quintessentially him in so many ways. Which is why it was so heartbreaking that, this time, he couldn’t receive a hero’s ending.