Just before the 58th minute, Wayne Rooney jogged over from the corner flag where he’d been warming up with his D.C. United teammates. The crowd at the new Audi Field, often demure for much of the match, started murmuring, and then cheering. It was time.
Rooney notched an assist, and made a stark impression as the best player on the pitch in his 32-minute debut, a 3-1 D.C. United win. The game was a welcome performance for D.C. United’s first match in their new stadium, Audi Field, and a joy for the fans there to see Rooney (no small amount of people, it must be said).
It all nearly started like a fairy tale. A minute after Rooney subbed in, Vancouver was called for a foul about 30 yards out. Rooney’s teammate Luciano Acosta, the diminutive Argentine attacker, seemed to want to have a go, but Rooney asserted himself. It was all almost setting up too perfectly — then Rooney fired it into the wall.
And for the first five minutes of play, Rooney did seem just that touch off. The cross in wasn’t quite pinpoint. The touches weren’t exactly how he wanted them. Then he started to settle in, and got a feel for the game, and then he took over.
Rooney’s takeover of the match, I should say, was not like some takeovers we’ve seen in this league. He didn’t assert himself physically or grandly like Zlatan Ibrahimovic had with his rocketed goal from distance in his debut for Los Angeles Galaxy. He didn’t take apart a defense with his dribbling as we’ve seen Giovinco do so often in this league.
Rooney played, well, clean. He started finding pockets of space, and then received and kept the ball moving. All of a sudden, D.C. United looked like they were playing with purpose. The 32-year-old Rooney might not be able to move like he could at 17 or 25, but the English attacker can still think, and his calming presence around the ball, his movement off of it, his quick play to find the next runner, all unlocked everything around him.
Suddenly, Acosta had someone who saw the game the way he did. The energetic Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber, both of whom had run hard all game, now had someone to find their feet as they moved off the ball.
“He just made the right play,” United head coach Ben Olsen said after the match. “There’s a huge value in that. The right weight. The right quality.”
And for United, who have bounds of energy and youth and not too much else going for them — they currently sit in last place in MLS’ Eastern Conference — it was precisely what they needed.
That quality was evident in both D.C. United goals Rooney was on the field for. The first began with Rooney when the ball was played with his back to goal. Feeling pressure on him from a defender (and a second shadowing over to provide support), Rooney played a simple one-touch pass back to Yamil Asad. Asad played the ball across the top of the box to Stieber, who touched it back into the path of an on-running Arriola. The defense, who had shadowed over to deal with Rooney, were undone. Arriola finished.
The second goal was more of the same. Acosta this time played into Rooney’s feet, and Rooney kept the ball moving, finding Arriola’s feet this time directly, who took his time, found his shot, and fired home.
There was something refreshingly earnest about Rooney’s presence on the day, not only the way he played — quick, clean, simple — but the way he earnestly cheered his teammates on, encouraging and organizing on the field, talking constantly.
“I think he is very much looking forward to his role here,” Olsen said.
At this fitness level, at this stage in his career, Rooney can’t take over a game individually like he once could. Maybe, sometime soon, he will be able to.
For now, he appears to just want to be a part of a team. And to help a club find its old winning ways.
After Arriola’s second goal, Rooney hugged the young midfielder, then, as he walked back to midfield, began to wave his arms up to the sky, as if to tell the tentative United crowd just how they were supposed to celebrate a moment like that. Finally, they woke up. They listened to their new star, and they screamed.