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  • Wayne Rooney's 96th-minute actions on the field vs. Orlando City spoke volumes, but so have some of the lesser-highlighted actions off of it, where the veteran English great is earning D.C. United's armband.
By Brian Straus
August 14, 2018

WASHINGTON — The cut on David Ousted’s right foot was open and infected. He could live with the discomfort. But D.C. United’s goalkeeper was due to take the field in Montreal, and he couldn’t cram his cleats on. Back home, perhaps you've got access to the “break glass in case of severe swelling” boot room. At Stade Saputo, however, there were fewer options.

Then Wayne Rooney, he of the broad shoulders and wide feet, saved the day. D.C.’s multi-million dollar signing—and Ousted’s new roommate—offered up a spare pair of white Nikes. The English icon likely thought nothing of it. But a week after that 1-1 draw, Ousted was happy to share the story. Small gestures by men of significant stature make an impression.

“When you get a new teammate, even more when you get a new roommate, you don’t know what to expect, especially a guy of his famousness and caliber on the field,” said Ousted, the Danish goalie. “But he’s very low key. He’s very honest with everybody, and from minute one, I had a really good perspective of what kind of guy he was—no ego.”

Hints of Rooney’s effort to assimilate and ingratiate were there well before the moment—Sunday night’s jaw-dropping, stoppage-time tackle and match-winning assist—that now stands out in all its viral glory. He was the all-time leading scorer for both England and Manchester United, still just 32, and then the most expensive and high-profile acquisition in D.C. United history. His July arrival would change the club, and nobody could be sure exactly how. But Rooney took control of the narrative by starting small and building toward Sunday night.

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He said he’d never had a roommate—not during his record-breaking 13 seasons in Manchester, his two stints with boyhood club Everton or while traveling the world with England. And he didn’t fly coach. D.C. United was happy to make a Designated Player exception on both fronts, but Rooney resisted.

“You’ve got to be ready and prepared to obviously do all that and accept all that, because that’s part of it,” Rooney said of the transition to a more humble MLS lifestyle. “That’s not going to change. I think it’s important you adapt and be close with your teammates also.”

Speaking at Audi Field last week to SI.com and The Washington Post, Rooney said, “They asked if I wanted my own room, but I think it would’ve been wrong for me to have a room on my own and the rest of the players share. … It’s something different. But I think it’s also important the players see that I’m in it with them and whatever they’re doing, I’ll be doing the same.”

Close proximity to teammates was only part of it. There were reporters in the post-game locker room, and youth teams watching training. And they were there, increasingly, to see him. Players seeking shelter in MLS are exposed in other ways, and Rooney immediately was the new face of the club. D.C. coach Ben Olsen understood that, telling The Post, “In some ways, [the captain] was always going to be Wayne.”

Then there was the matter of veteran defender Steve Birnbaum, a U.S. international who wore the armband last year. This wasn’t going to be a David Beckham-Landon Donovan sort of situation—the profiles are a bit lower in the capital—but friction, miscommunication or jealousy can impact chemistry. You get paid millions to alter a team’s trajectory, but you must do so without rocking the boat. It isn’t easy, and success isn’t inevitable.

So after speaking with Olsen about the captaincy, Rooney sought out Birnbaum to talk it over. Ousted, who arrived in January, needed a roommate. And Rooney signed up. On August 4 in Montreal, while playing with a broken nose and without any protection, Rooney blocked a shot with his face. That just “happens sometimes,” he said. And on Sunday night against Orlando City, with D.C. desperate to preserve a draw against the 10-man visitors, captain Rooney raced half the length of the field in stoppage time. He tackled Orlando midfielder Will Johnson, won the ball, took a couple touches and then hit a high, almost impossibly accurate cross to 5-foot-3 teammate Luciano Acosta, whose third goal of the game lifted D.C. to a famous 3-2 win that may just keep its slim postseason hopes afloat.

“The play he makes is what he’s about and I think we’ll see that more and more as he’s here. He’s a winner. He’s selfless and he’s come here to prove himself even though he doesn’t need to,” Olsen said. “He’s here to bring up the level of the group, including myself. And I think that play is just indicative of who he is.”

For Ousted, it’s all indicative—the loaner cleats, flying coach and making that ridiculous recovery run and tackle in the 96th minute.

“If hadn’t done any of that, I don’t think anyone would’ve said anything. But that shows what kind of guy he is,” Ousted said. “Above anything, he wants to win.”

D.C. United, once Major League Soccer’s flagship club, needs the wins. Its only significant honor this decade was a fluky U.S. Open Cup crown captured the same season (2013) it posted the second-worst record in MLS history. But even wins aren’t everything. United has slipped. The Washington Capitals’ long-awaited Stanley Cup triumph, and the local conversation about the city’s burdensome pro sports title drought, was indicative. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Caps’ Cup run ended a 26-year wait, ignoring the four MLS Cup championships United claimed in the interim. DCU, which often drew crowds exceeding 20,000 during the MLS 1.0 era but then spent too many seasons fielding modest rosters in a crumbling stadium, had been relegated to the kids table along with the Kastles, Bayhawks and Divas.

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Last month, owners Jason Levien and the recently-divested Erick Thohir finally opened Audi Field, but even that is far from a panacea. A dispute with two supporters groups (now resolved) damaged DCU’s reputation among hardcore fans and highlighted the fraying connections between the club and public. There’s been skepticism, distraction and some fatigue. It’s been clear that while pro soccer has offered something new and exciting in other American cities, in Washington there’s been a few years of ennui. Rooney’s signing—it’s a hefty eight-figure contract covering 2.5-3.5 seasons—is designed to address a lot of that.

There was the tackle, the 40-yard cross, and the looping header by Acosta. There was pandemonium at Audi Field. The Argentine playmaker, who’s blessed with all-star talent but doesn’t always exhibit all-star temperament, lauded Rooney in the dressing room. Their lockers are adjacent, and a relationship (or mentorship) is blossoming. Acosta said via translator, “It motivates you a lot when you see a player like Wayne sprint back like that and recover the ball. That might have just given us that extra push to finish the game the way we did, with the euphoria that we did. It all comes back to the sacrifice of Señor Wayne.”

Outside and upstairs, D.C. fans were sharing videos of their view of the goal, and the moment was amplified online. FIFA tweeted the replay to its 12.1 million followers, ESPN SportsCenter sent it out to 35.2 million and BBC Sport posted it to 7.4 million. J.J. Watt and James Corden shared it with a combined 15 million, many of whom surely have never heard of D.C. United, and Rooney posted the video—and congratulated Acosta on his hat trick—to his 16.9 million followers. It's surely the most viewed play in club history, and don’t think for a second that those numbers don’t mean as much to the team and league as the goals and points. DCU needed to make a splash on several levels, and Rooney—a battering ram of a player with a surgeon’s precision in the locker room—has delivered so far.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Fame of his sort is a tightrope, and he seems to be finding balance quickly in this new environment, where the media follows you to your locker but not on a night out, and where teammates who’ve won World Cups are replaced by men earning less than five percent of your salary. Rooney and Birnbaum, the ex-captain, are “joined,” the Englishman said. And they’re working together to strengthen a young DCU locker room, recently organizing a team-wide virtual golf field trip. Rooney is going to be in Washington for a while (his wife Coleen was in town last week helping with the house hunt and watched her husband train for the first time in his career), so he may as well do everything possible make it comfortable.

His pedigree and salary, especially in MLS, remain rare. It can warp perception and creates a strange contradiction: we demand humility, unselfishness and sacrifice, but somehow don’t expect it. Rooney’s approach and early impact have been a pleasant surprise to many, even though he’d insist that he’s just being himself. Olsen pointed out, “Guys play at that level and win consistently because they’re always proving something. They live with that.”

It’s telling that Rooney came to Washington, while so many DP peers seem to think the United States begins in New York and ends in Southern California. It’s a city with significant soccer tradition, but it’s hardly sports-crazy or full of glamour and distraction. Some big names have come to MLS in search of it all. Rooney has other priorities. He may not have the face or diction of one sort of leading man, but he’s got the focus and feet of a different kind.

“They’re way too busy for me, those places,” he said of MLS’s more popular DP destinations. “I felt this is the right place for me to come with my wife and children, and obviously it’s, yeah, I think in terms of proving myself, I understand that people, maybe some fans, might get frustrated when they see players coming over maybe a bit later stage in their career. I can understand some of the frustration at times. But that’s for me to show with performances that I’m not here just to be on holiday. I’m here to work, and I’ll have plenty of time when I finish playing to enjoy myself and have holidays.”

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He’s traveled the world and he’s known across it, but Rooney has never really been far from home. He’s lived and worked in North West England his entire life, and there’s a lot to get used to on this new journey, from smaller seats and longer flights, to what he described as games that “are a bit more open.” Not to mention Ousted’s singing in the shower (that’s the goalie’s admission). But there’s opportunity as well—financially, for his family, and to burnish a robust résumé that somehow still hasn’t satisfied everyone.

The reasons are potentially myriad and surely a matter of perception, but it’s probably safe to say that Rooney isn’t as beloved as many English legends with fewer goals, caps or titles. Anyone can find flaws if they’re looking for them, and Rooney’s career has invited criticism. Whatever he did, he could’ve or should’ve done more. Few questioned his talent. But issues of comportment, class, commitment and potential always are in the eye of the biased beholder. And it couldn’t have felt good to find out he was surplus at Everton after only one season back at Goodison Park, during which he was the team’s leading scorer.

“From what I’ve seen, I think if you do well over here, then I think you celebrate success here more than you do in England,” Rooney said.

And so that, along with the money and lifestyle and adventure, is what’s on offer in football’s new world. Rooney joined a last-place team in need, eager to return to respectability on the field and relevance off it. DCU (5-9-6) desperately needed that win on Sunday, and it’s now nine points out of the final playoff spot with a welcome five matches in hand. And most will be at Audi Field, where Rooney already is silencing skepticism and winning people over. During a VAR delay following Acosta’s header, the crowd behind the south goal chanted Rooney’s name. And on the north side, his teammates waited for him to join them before raising their hands and saluting the standing, flag-waving supporters.

Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

He’s been in Washington for six games. It’s been a month. There are seasons left to go. D.C. still is a ways away from challenging the league's elite, and the Audi Field novelty may diminish. New challenges will arise. But Rooney's start really couldn’t have been better, and that’s in large part due to his humility, an understanding of the importance of establishing a foundation, and an ability to get those small, personal details right while anticipating their impact on the bigger picture. Acosta’s game winner was the sort of moment that results. It began with Rooney’s recognition of how the play might unfold. And although so much had still had happen, first he had to decide to run.

“I’m not someone who wants to go over the top on things. In terms of here, of course you want to come here and leave a legacy. If I didn’t have that ambition, then I wouldn’t be here,” Rooney said. “So, you want to come here, and when I finish playing, see pictures up in the locker room and in the stadium. I want to be in those pictures and then when young guys come through and we say, 'He was a captain who led us to success and led us to trophies.'

“Whether you’re playing in World Cups or you’re playing Premier League, in Serie A, in MLS, wherever you go, there’s fans, there’s supporters, there’s media," he continued. "There’s a chance to be successful and leave a legacy. Hopefully at the end of my time here, sit down with you guys and you can say whether you think I have or haven’t. Hopefully I have.”

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