It was the fall of 2002 when 16-year-old Wayne Rooney stepped on to an English Premier League pitch for the first time. He made his debut for Everton on August 17 of that year, registering an assist in a 2-2 draw against Tottenham. Just a month later, he scored his first EPL goal.
The rest of Rooney’s career is something of legend.
After scoring 15 goals in 67 appearances for the Toffees, Rooney made the move to English giants Manchester United for what was then a record transfer fee for a player under 20 years old. It was with the Red Devils that Rooney went from being an up-and-coming star to one of the world’s best players, making 393 appearances and scoring a club-record 183 goals. He won five Premier League titles, one FA Cup and one Champions League during his time with United, as he also became a star for England, retiring from international soccer as his national team’s top scorer as well.
After a brief return to Everton to end his career in England, Rooney, then 32, made the move to Major League Soccer and D.C. United in late June of last season, looking to revamp a once-triumphant squad.
In Year 1 in MLS, Rooney accomplished that to some degree, racking up 12 goals and seven assists in 20 games (18 starts) while making the MLS Best XI. In his first season, he helped D.C. return to the MLS Cup playoffs before eventually losing to Columbus Crew SC in the Knockout Round in a penalty kick shootout.
On Wednesday night, Rooney will see the Crew again, this time at MAPFRE Stadium. The Black & Gold enter the game on the back of two consecutive losses, only their second and third defeats of 2019, and looking to bounce back. But in order to return to winning ways, Columbus must figure out how to stop Rooney, who is already on pace for an even better second season in MLS.
“I think that’s the biggest thing with him, he’s just a fox in the box and he’s just going to get to his spot and he’s not going to miss much,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said of Rooney. “He’s deadly. When you look at him, he’s strong but he’s not all that quick and he’s not a dribbler. He’s just a box striker and he’s just lethal and he can just crush a ball with both feet, placement, power.”
But it’s not just in the penalty box that the Black & Gold’s defense will have to be wary of Rooney. He is a player that moves well around the field, looking to find space wherever it is available. His power and ability make him dangerous no matter where he receives the ball and he can not only score from anywhere but set teammates up as well.
“You’ve got to pay attention to a guy like that,” fullback Hector Jimenez said. “He’s very good with service.
“Communication (is important). We’ve already talked, most of his touches come from the left side of their attack... Between Artur, Jonathan (Mensah) and whoever plays at center back and midfield, if we can communicate and we can put enough pressure, I think we limit the chances he has throughout the game.”
Not only is Rooney good for scoring goals, but his presence makes other players shine. He brings out the best in his teammates and United certainly has talent in players such as Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola.
“He brings other players into the game,” captain Wil Trapp mentioned. “Someone that can be a focal point.”
A once great team in MLS, United pretty much became a laughing stock in the league in recent years. Rooney is now one of the main — if not the main — reason why D.C. United is in the position they are today, making the Eastern Conference knockout round last year and hoping to push on beyond that this season.
As he’s done with both of his previous clubs, Rooney looks to make his impact felt and bring home trophies in MLS, something the Crew are aware of and don’t want to allow, starting with Wednesday night at MAPFRE Stadium.
“His track record, of course, speaks for itself,” Trapp said. “But what I think he does so well is bring other players into the game, more than D.C.’s ever had. And then that can be a focal point and can make other players shine... He really kind of knits it together in a way that not only attracts defenders to him but frees up space for his teammates really well.
“(D.C.’s) a team that we know we’ll play down the road, of course, but we want to get our first crack at them at home and play well.”