When Wayne Rooney arrived, sensationally and unexpectedly, in the nation’s capital last summer, he signed a three-and-a-half-year contract with D.C. United and declared his intention to “leave a legacy.”
“So, you want to come here, and when I finish playing, see pictures up in the locker room and in the stadium,” he told SI.com one year ago. “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.’”
There’s still not much decoration at Audi Field, DCU’s home ground which opened in July 2018. When the club gets around to hanging photos or banners of legends like Jaime Moreno and Eddie Pope, there might be room for one or two of Rooney. He brought unprecedented attention to the team at a time when it needed to make a good impression. He’s done his job on the field, tallying 23 goals and 14 assists in 44 MLS games. And he provided a few memorable highlights, including the iconic and viral recovery run, tackle and booming stoppage-time assist against Orlando City. That win last August sparked a 10-2-3 run that put United back into the MLS Cup playoffs.
But the opportunity to win those trophies and leave that legacy has now narrowed considerably. Rooney’s stay in Washington won’t be three and a half years. Instead it’ll be one and a half, thanks to a deal announced Tuesday morning between DCU and Derby County, which Rooney will join as a player-coach following the 2019 MLS campaign. He’ll be remembered for doing just about everything right while he was here and then, unless United’s season turns around and that trophy is somehow secured, for leaving much earlier than promised. It’s unclear how that should be depicted in a photo.
Playing abroad is about a whole lot more than soccer, and the experience can become less about the quality of play than the quality of life. For Rooney, the latter seemed good. He embraced his role as a captain and leader on United, flying coach with his teammates (not a given for stars of such stature), spending time with academy players and even attending a weekend morning ribbon cutting for a new community field complex near RFK Stadium. But adapting to a new country with a family—Rooney has a wife and four sons—isn’t always seamless. The 33-year-old had never lived more than a few miles from his Liverpool birthplace, and home has a unique gravitational pull. Perhaps that was unanticipated when he signed with D.C. last year.
“While the decision to move home was a tough one, family is everything to us and we make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England,” Rooney said in a Tuesday statement. “The opportunity to go back home and start the next step of my career in coaching was the factor that made my mind up.”
United took a chance on an older Designated Player. Some work out and some don’t, and barring an MLS Cup title this fall, Rooney’s MLS sojourn will fall somewhere in between. He did just about everything that was asked of him except stay, and D.C. deserves a bit of credit for keeping him through the end of this year (although there is no transfer fee, according to The Washington Post). Derby wanted him to start immediately, as the English Championship season just kicked off. It’s his decision to leave before he joins Moreno, Pope, Etcheverry, and the rest in the United pantheon.
"After speaking to Wayne and understanding his difficult situation of being so far away from his family, we have accepted that this is the best decision for all parties,” DCU co-owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien said. "Wayne is an exceptional leader and one of the most iconic players to play the game, so we look forward to his continued contributions to the team this season."
Levien and Kaplan have some work to do. Rooney obviously was never going to be some kind of long-term building block, but his departure—plus the uncertain future (and inconsistent present) of playmaker Luciano Acosta—leave D.C. at a crossroads. The impending acquisition of Norwegian striker Ola Kamara, formerly of the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy, should ease some of the discomfort. But United is a championship contender only because MLS’s competition format is so random and forgiving. They’d need a lot of luck.
But the club still is in a better place than it was when negotiations to sign Rooney began. Audi Field, while lacking those tributes to titles and icons past, still is a great place to watch a game, and it's obviously a vast improvement over RFK. The stadium has secured DCU’s future in Washington. The club had been sliding into irrelevance as RFK decayed, the mediocre seasons piled up, and the Capitals became champions and the Nationals contenders.
Audi Field was the necessary kindling, but it was Rooney’s arrival and the ensuing run that lit the spark. He helped make sure United left a good first impression as it moved to its new home—and there’s only one chance to do that. So if his departure upsets fans and frustrates the club, and if he’s leaving short of legendary status, at least he’ll have helped throw a hell of a housewarming party. That’s worth a spot in the scrapbook, if not the rafters.