Wayne Rooney’s move to DC United isn’t only a good move for him, but for American soccer, too
Sure, one of England’s best at the helm can help the struggling DC team, but he can also help the MLS. PIC: Jacquelyn Martin, AP
In North America, it’s clear that fans of the “big four” sports - baseball, football, basketball, and hockey - look inside the confines of their own country for their sports. And, for good reason - the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL have it all; the best talent, the best venues, the most exposure to multimedia and publicity.
Soccer is a different story. A game that is so popular throughout the world has struggled to make the same ripples in the USA. And even though the MLS has increased its average in-person attendance to over 20,000 per game and has entered into 29 new markets - adding 9 new teams since 2015 (and another in St. Louis City next year) - adoption is still slow.
Americans simply love international soccer. They turn on Liga MX to watch Club America dominate its opponents. There are plenty of early Saturday mornings for the English Premier League fixtures, La Liga (Spain) contests, and - my personal favorite - Serie A in Italy. The World Cup is some of American soccer fans’ favorite sports “seasons” of the year, even though it only lasts less than a month. Many Americans don’t even root for the US Men’s National Team - they’ve taken a keen interest in French phenom Kylian Mbappe, the rich history of five-time winner Brazil, or the resurgent Germans.
And, stateside, the ties to international soccer continue in the MLS with DC United opting to bring back English legend Wayne Rooney - who donned the black-and-red for a season and a half - as its head coach. Rooney was DC United’s top goal scorer for the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, even not having completed a full season.
Make no mistake, this is a good opportunity for Rooney. He’s one of the best soccer players in history; his program-leading 253 goals for Manchester United over 14 years there and his whopping 53 goals for the English National team in just 120 appearances are accolades that will live in history. He slowed down a bit towards the end of his career, but through his return to Everton and stint with DC United, he still showed signs of greatness…including this legendary sequence that won the black-and-red the game.
The EFL side Derby County came calling for Rooney to be a player-coach, eventually with the goal of transitioning to the permanent manager spot. That transition came sooner than he planned, as Rooney retired from playing in 2021 to focus full-time on managing. He was praised for getting Derby out of the relegation zone, moving from 24th in the table to 18th the next year. But in the 2021-2022 season, Rooney’s Derby County just barely avoided the relegation fate by drawing 3-3 with Sheffield Wednesday on the last day of the season.
After he resigned in late June, he was spottedat the Washington, D.C. airport, and the rest was history.
The debate is on if DC United should be lauded for this move, or if they should be criticized for their preference of bringing Rooney back rather than a coach that can develop homegrown American talent.
And the short answer is - in my opinion - a move like this should be celebrated.
Historically, DC United has not spent big. Their ownership group - DC United Holdings - isn’t comprised of big-money names like other soccer investment groups. Some of their largest stakeholders, Brain Davis and Christian Laettner, certainly have money to spend, but it’s not the “elite-level” sort of investment that many other sides carry. And over United’s existence, the reluctance to spend money has shown in their results.
A hire like Rooney is a step in the right direction for one reason: embracing the international community. The club now has more credibility to pursue talent internationally; the best English football player - arguably of all time - as its chief ambassador can only help.
DC United, of course, isn’t the only club that made an international legend its poster child. David Beckham and Phil Neville are synonymous with Inter Miami. Adrian Heath - a solid player for Everton and Burnley in the ‘80s and ‘90s - made waves when he was tabbed as the Orlando City coach in 2011, and when he moved to Minnesota United FC in 2017. So many others have
So, the vexing issue of “should the face of American soccer be international?” has one simple answer: yes, embrace it.
DC United can reverse its struggling ways with the right ambassador, the right finances, and maybe some luck. But now, it's given a win-win to two major parties: the best English football player of his generation, and the American faithful.