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Younger Rooney could prosper as attacking midfielder for Red Bulls

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Until recently few soccer fans knew about the other Rooney. Every fan has heard of Wayne, but John Rooney's move to New York Red Bulls has given him a taste of the kind of media attention familiar to his older brother. Life was quieter at his old club Macclesfield Town.

Technically, Macclesfield is home to some of the world's greatest soccer players. The town is 18 miles south of Manchester, near a patch of countryside where the wealthy stars of Manchester United and Manchester City, Wayne Rooney among them, live in custom-designed mansions.

But the riches of Premier League soccer are very different to life at Macclesfield Town FC. Less than 2000 fans turn out to watch Macclesfield Town play in League Two, the fourth tier of the game in England.

John Rooney was always going to be the second-best Rooney in town, with brother Wayne so close by.

"John is very much his own man, sometimes to the point where if people wanted to speak to him just because he is Wayne's brother, he wouldn't speak to them" said Macclesfield Town manager Gary Simpson, who coached Rooney throughout his time at the club (between 2008-10).

When Rooney signed for Macclesfield's youth team as a 15 year old in March 2007, his surname was the only notable thing about him. He had ball skills, but was overweight. Macclesfield's youth coaches improved his fitness and a year later he was promoted to the senior squad, for the 2008/2009 season. Encouraging appearances from the substitutes bench gradually won him a place in the team.

When the 2009/2010 season began, Rooney started most of the club's first 20 fixtures. He earned positive reviews and scored his best goal for the club against Carlisle United, a low shot into the bottom corner of the goal from 30 yards out. Other clubs inevitably began to notice the young Macclesfield player with the famous brother and transfer rumors subsequently circulated. In January of that year he was heavily linked with a $789,000 move to League One side Southampton.

In March he had a trial with Championship club Derby County, with further trials at Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, but no permanent move happened. Macclesfield had offered to extend his contract, which was due to end when the season finished. However, while Rooney didn't reject the contract, he didn't sign it either. The offer stayed open throughout the summer of 2010. If Rooney signed for another English club, Macclesfield would have been due a compensation fee because of his age -- which may have deterred clubs from signing him.

"It's hard to say exactly why no one went for him. All I can say is that he did well for us on occasions" says Gary Simpson. Back in August, Rooney had trials with Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Simpson says there was talk of him going to Belgium before he settled on the USA.

It is no surprise that Rooney moved away from the physical battles of lower-league English soccer. He is a player who, in his own words, "likes to make things happen." He needs the ball at his feet to do that. In English lower-league soccer, tough-tackling central players are usually tall -- well over 6 feet -- and strong. The soccer isn't always pretty to watch, and the teams that succeed are often the strongest and fittest rather than the most skillful. Rooney, at 5-foot-10, sometimes struggled with the physical side of the game at Macclesfield.

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Simpson believes Rooney's lack of strength is his main weakness on the pitch. "I think if it wasn't for that, with the ability he's got, you'd have another top class player at the highest level."

He certainly has plenty of technical ability. One moment, on Day 2 of the MLS combine, stands out as an example of the kind of play MLS fans can expect to see from John Rooney. Deep inside his own half of the pitch, Rooney hit a beautiful long pass to put Adipure's forward through for a shot on goal. The vision and skill of that pass show some of Rooney's best attributes as a footballer.

Goals could become a big part of Rooney's game, despite scoring only three in his 45 appearances for Macclesfield. The goal he scored at the combine showed his quick footwork and ability to create space for himself. In England, defenders would often close him down quickly or foul. He often chooses to shoot from long range, and can strike the ball with impressive power.

Although comparisons with his brother are unfair, the younger Rooney plays with the same determination and will to win. Simpson says he has a good "football brain," a phrase that usually describes a player who sees passing options other players don't.

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe described Rooney as a box-to-box midfielder, but at Macclesfield he was used in several different roles.

"There was a slight problem with his best position. We tried him up front, but he didn't have the pace to run in behind defenders. If he played as a central midfielder he'd need a bit more physical strength," said Simpson.

Rooney's most effective position may be "in the hole" between the midfield and forwards. He plays best going forward, and has the vision and passing to be a creative playmaker.

In England, where the 4-4-2 formation remains popular, Rooney didn't quite fit in. At Macclesfield he was best used in a three-man midfield system, 4-3-3 or 5-3-2, as the most attacking of the central trio. When Macclesfield changed system, Rooney would often found himself on the bench. However, Gary Simpson believes his former player can succeed in MLS.

"Their game is probably a bit more technical in terms of passing and ball control. That might suit him. On his day I reckon he could go and play with anybody, and playing with better players could probably bring out the best in him, you never know."

With Henry, Marquez and now Rooney, the Red Bulls certainly have some of the biggest names in MLS.

Matthew Brown is a freelance journalist who is also a columnist for Macclesfield Town FC.