WASHINGTON — Wayne Rooney is just three and a half months into his tenure with D.C. United, but it feels like he's been around for longer.
The Englishman did so much to revitalize Major League Soccer's original superpower this season, yet fit into the locker room so seamlessly, that it's easy to forget United had just two wins all year when he arrived in mid-July.
In the months thereafter, United rocketed so far up the standings that they clinched a playoff berth with a week to go in the regular season. After languishing in last place in early summer, D.C. finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, earning a first-round home game. Though their season ended with a penalty shootout loss to the Columbus Crew at Audi Field, Rooney fully earned his status as a finalist for this year's MVP award.
Rooney, who turned 33 this month, scored 12 goals in 21 games for D.C. this year — including eight goals in the seven-game late-season homestand that helped them vault up the standings. The goals came in all shapes and sizes, from tap-ins to volleys to a spectacular 35-yard free kick against Toronto FC that went viral worldwide.
Stars have led runs in MLS before: Didier Drogba in Montreal, Thierry Henry in New York, David Beckham in Los Angeles. But a midseason turnaround like what United achieved this year is nearly unprecedented in MLS.
"This is what he seems to love to do: just play and win," said United manager Ben Olsen, a Harrisburg-area native, after the aforementioned Toronto game. "His habits are so contagious to some of our young guys, how to go about the game and make the right play and dig in when you need to. … Nobody else can look at that and not follow his lead."
As proof, look at Rooney's signature play in D.C. to date. It isn't a goal, but a half-the-field sprint to steal the ball before launching an attack that a teammate finished.
That teammate, Luciano Acosta, has also been key to United's success — and to Rooney's success individually. A smart Argentine playmaker, he has 10 goals and 17 assists, and works especially well with Rooney.
"We just enjoy playing with each other. We both play to each other's strengths," Rooney told reporters after a late-season win over New York City FC that clinched the playoff berth. "He's the one who's going to get ball and run at defenders. … He comes in a bit away from the goal, [I] give him the ball, and then get in the box. It's great to play with players like that, because you know they are always going to create your chances and create chances for themselves."
The new stadium mattered, too, in part because of how it affected United's schedule. After playing two early-season games at other local venues, they played 15 times at Audi Field from July 14 through the end of the regular season.
While Rooney helped fill the stands, his celebrity status wasn't the only reason D.C. signed him. The team needed not just a star, but also someone who would help restore their tradition of trophies.
D.C. won three of MLS' first four championships, from 1996 to 1999. In 1998, it won the Concacaf regional title and a series against the South American champion that made the team the king of the Western hemisphere. And the city has been long accustomed to hosting soccer stars.
Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes led those early title-winners. In 2003, Hristo Stoichkov made United his last stop 11 years after he won the European Cup with Barcelona. A year later, it was Freddy Adu's first stop as the most-hyped 14-year-old in American soccer history. And before all of them, Dutch legend Johan Cryuff called the city home in the NASL era.
In this decade, there have been no stars and just one title: the 2013 U.S. Open Cup. Crowds that used to be among MLS' biggest became some of its smallest, sapping the soul from RFK Stadium's famed bouncing bleachers.
This year, the soccer spotlight finally returned to the nation's capital. The noise and color of the playoff game's atmosphere brought some old-school echoes to D.C.'s sleek new home.
Yet while Rooney was a big reason for the acclaim, he didn't go chasing headlines. Unlike MLS' other marquee imports this year, he doesn't have Zlatan Ibrahimović's outsized ego or Carlos Vela's Hollywood looks.
Compare Rooney to Washington's other big sports stars, too. The exuberance that defines Bryce Harper and Alex Ovechkin isn't his style. In fact, Rooney's loudest pronouncement so far has been how happy he is to live in a quiet suburb with his wife and children.
In turn, Washington hasn't made Rooney into a spectacle. A city of diplomats and politicians doesn't find Rooney's global fame curious in the way that some Philadelphians do with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Nor does Olsen, who played for United from 1998 to 2009 and became their head coach a year later. But that doesn't mean he isn't enjoying it.
"This has been a lot of fun the last two months," he said at the height of his team's surge.
If Rooney can play this well again next year, the fun should keep on going.