For years, DC United had targeted June 2018 as a turning point. It was the moment everything would change for one of American soccer’s most storied institutions, which had fallen on tougher times in recent years.
And, as it happened, the opening of a new $400m stadium last summer did coincide with a dramatic upturn in fortunes for the club. Bricks and mortar cannot explain what has happened at DC United over the past year, though.
Whether by design or not, the opening of Audi Field coincided with the arrival of Wayne Rooney, something that will go down as the most significant moment in DC United’s recent history. The former England and Manchester United striker was always likely to make an impact in MLS, such is his undoubted quality, but few predicted the cultural change he would bring to his new club.
For the best part of a decade, roughly the decade following David Beckham’s landmark arrival in the States, a time when MLS moved into a new era, DC United were left behind. Left to rot in a crumbling multi-use stadium that was never truly suited to soccer. While their rivals brought in the likes of Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane, DC United had to make do with players Hamdi Salihi. While the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union opened gleaming new soccer-specific venues on the east coast.
Indeed, DC United’s deterioration was about more than just what was visible on the pitch. This was a franchise that not only had fallen out of the limelight, going 14 years without an MLS Cup final appearance, but had lost direction and purpose.
Rooney, in just one year, shaped the franchise, he putted a bookend on the past and opening a new chapter up on the future.
At first, DC United’s form in the second half of last season looked to be the result of the archetypal new signing bump. Rooney scored 12 goals in 19 starts, dragging his team from the bottom of the Eastern Conference into the playoffs. His numbers have dropped off somewhat this season, (although not by much), yet DC United have managed to sustain their form. They are for real.
Should United, currently second in the Eastern Conference, keep hold of their best players (meaning, if they can prevent Luciano Acosta from making the much-speculated switch to Europe after Paris Saint-Germain’s January move for him collapsed), they will be among the frontrunners for this season’s MLS Cup.
“He’s changed everything. I think he’s changed the culture of this club,” DC United defender Steve Birnbaum explained about Rooney’s impact to MLS’s ExtraTime podcast. “The work ethic that he puts in in practice and you guys see it in the games, but he’s the type of guy who just wants to win at all costs. Guys want to play for him. They want to show him that they’re putting in the work just the same as he is. We have this sort of confidence or swag going into games because of him.”