Wayne Rooney will have to fall back on his experience at Derby County to make a success of his second coming at DC United with the side 13th in the MLS Eastern Conference after 17 games, level on points with rock bottom Chicago
Tuesday 19 July 2022 15:02, UK
"It is fantastic to be joining DC United at such an exciting time in the club's history with the new stadium opening in just a few weeks.
"Moving to America and MLS fulfils another career ambition for me. I have the hunger to be a success here and will give DC 100 per cent - as I have always done for every team I have ever played for."
It was almost precisely four years ago - July 10, 2018 - when Wayne Rooney officially completed his move to DC United during the US mid-season transfer window.
Rooney's impact at Audi Field was instantaneous.
The then manager Ben Olsen made him captain of the side after just three matches, scoring in his first game while wearing the armband past his former Manchester United team-mate Tim Howard in a 2-1 win over Colorado Rapids.
Typically, Rooney left the pitch with a bloodied and broken nose. Plenty of goals and no shortage of grit illuminated his playing career, but his time as a fledgling manager has been marked by upheaval and unrest.
Wayne's world is heading back to the States with just 18 months of experience in the hot seat - an apt term to describe the goings-on at Derby County, where a prolonged period of uncertainty drained the life out of him.
Rooney's departure from Derby was met with surprise by some onlookers but the confirmation of his DC United post has now brought clarity.
He cited the need for someone with "fresh energy" to lead Derby. While the battle to survive administration and pursuit of new ownership was no longer his fire to fight, the 36-year-old is returning to a very different place to how he may remember his first time at DC United.
Rooney brought an abrupt end to his three-and-a-half-year contract with the MLS club after just 18 months, citing family reasons for his decision to become a player-coach at Derby in August 2019.
DC United will be hoping for a longer stay this time around. His arrival at Dulles Airport on Sunday night was in stark contrast to the fanfare that greeted him midway through the 2018 campaign.
Rooney was in the autumn of his playing career, but it was a stay not without its success - a record of 25 goals in 52 games stands as testament to that - but this time he was not swamped by hundreds of jubilant supporters. He donned the same grey Yelir World baseball cap but that is where the similarities ended.
Following in the footsteps of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, Rooney was seen as the next poster boy of soccer in the States to compete with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ashley Cole who had already set up residence at LA Galaxy.
"This is a seminal moment for our fans and organisation. Wayne is a global soccer icon and his presence at DC United will elevate our product on the pitch and soccer as a whole in our city and in this country," said Jason Levien, United managing general partner and CEO back in 2018.
"Wayne is a really well-respected player on the field and in the dressing room. He continues to be about the right things. Leaders are hard to come by nowadays in the game of soccer. He is a very good one. We're thrilled to have his leadership as we enter this new era at Audi Field."
Those words are as pertinent today as they were four years ago. Indeed, Rooney's impact helped lift DC United from last place to a play-off berth in the second half of that first season.
There were moments of class, especially in two games against Orlando City where he scored from inside his own half and also set up a dramatic winner having made a heroic tackle to prevent a certain goal. Such highlights will no doubt be played on loop over the coming weeks to put a positive spin on his first spell.
The truth is there was a bitterness generated by his exit.
Legendary MLS commentator and WTOP sports director Dave Johnson, who has been calling DC United games for over 25 years, is perfectly placed to summarise the mood surrounding Rooney's return to the States.
"It's a move that has caught everybody on the hop," Johnson tells Sky Sports. "The reports of him boarding a flight from London to Washington were initially dismissed as being for some other reason.
"Four years ago in 2018, we knew he was coming on a flight and there was a big crowd waiting for him at Dulles Airport but not this time. We now know he's going to be DC United's next head coach."
Not so much upstaged by any Gareth Bale fever that has swept the nation - the Wales star is a relatively small fish in a big pond in Los Angeles - Rooney's return is getting a lukewarm response from even those who see football as their primary sport given how he departed MLS.
He described his first move to DC United as another "career ambition" fulfilled, the "next chapter" in his illustrious journey, but he would leave with two seasons still remaining on his contract. A 5-1 defeat to Toronto in the 2019 play-offs was a bitterly disappointing way to bring down the curtain.
"Rooney energised the club both on and off the field," Johnson maintains. "When he arrived in 2018, our ice hockey team the Washington Capitals had just won the Stanley Cup and then we had a global icon arriving in Wayne Rooney to lead DC United into the play-offs.
"Rooney missed a penalty in a heartbreak of a play-off shootout against Columbus Crew in front of their biggest ever crowd at Audi Field but there was momentum being carried into 2019.
"That momentum was then muted by his decision to leave for family reasons. It ultimately led him to Derby County but the feeling was that he was only just getting started at DC United.
"The news of his return has caught everybody off guard. I'm not sure anyone expected him to come back in a coaching role, even though it was first talked about when he arrived as a player."
Rooney has reportedly agreed a $1m-a-year deal (£830,000) across "multiple years" to return as head coach, with the former England captain travelling alone as his wife Coleen remained at home.
Coleen memorably said the US capital was "quite behind the UK" in texts to Rebekah Vardy revealed during the 'Wagatha Christie' episode, and Rooney can expect a frosty reception from some supporters.
Rooney was heard telling some bystanders upon landing that he still had a "few things to sort out", and one item atop his in-tray will be to build bridges with those irked by his sudden escape. DC must be United if his second spell is to fare any better than his short-lived return to Everton for one season before he was first attracted Stateside.
Rooney's second stint at Goodison Park did not quite work out as planned and he was unable to help the club challenge for silverware, despite being their top scorer with 11 goals in 40 matches across all competitions.
While Rooney's ultimate goal is to one day manage in the Premier League, ideally at Everton, his boyhood club, there is unfinished business in the American capital.
In turning down the chance to make the jump earlier this year, it was an act of loyalty to Derby but also an acknowledgement that he needs more experience before making such a steep ascent.
Rooney would not have been short of offers in the Championship - perhaps even the Premier League - throughout the coming season, but in making a quick return to work, he is avoiding any danger of his stock diminishing.
Having had nothing to gain in managing Derby in England's third tier, Rooney has protected his reputation by choosing a natural point to cut those ties - and his managerial credentials can be further boosted if he has a similar impact in MLS.
A rousing speech to Derby fans following their failure to avoid the drop highlighted his motivational qualities. DC United will be hoping for more of the same.
While for some he will forever be classed as the embodiment of the country's Golden Generation, considered by many experts to have collectively under-delivered on their potential, Rooney is Premier League and English football royalty. He is the second-highest goalscorer in Premier League history, with 208 goals. He is the nation's record goalscorer, still ahead of Harry Kane, on 53 goals in 120 appearances.
During 13 years with Manchester United he won the Premier League on five occasions, the Champions League, the FA Cup and three League Cups. His status as a legend of the game cannot be questioned.
Rooney remains a work in progress as a manager and has not acted above his station. He could easily have waited for a more lucrative job to come along, but he has chosen to remain active in an environment he knows well.
Given that he called an end to his career as a player at 35 and as a result of so much football from such a young age, time is on his side. Bale has chosen the US for potentially his final career move, but Rooney can look to the managerial path of Patrick Vieira for inspiration.
The former Arsenal midfielder and World Cup winner didn't turn up his nose at the opportunity of managing New York City FC - and the Frenchman took the club from 17th in 2015 to fourth in his first season in 2016 and then to second place in 2017. Eighteen months at Ligue 1 Nice conversely did relatively little to enhance his reputation.
Yet Vieira has excelled at Crystal Palace and was among the five nominees for the LMA manager of the season award won last season by Jurgen Klopp. Nothing is set in stone about the route to becoming a managerial great, whether this is a decision based on finance, lifestyle or the stated ambition Rooney has spoken of in public.
Rooney can continue to develop a philosophy and way of playing away from the constant glare of the English media, even if every result will be noted.
DC United supporters wouldn't want their club to be viewed as a breeding ground for young managers where mistakes can be made, but at the same time even the most ardent fan will accept that MLS is still years, if not decades, behind the pinnacle of English football on virtually every level.
In that sense, this remains a big coup for American soccer and one that suits all parties. Rooney's time at Derby will have taught him more than many managers have experienced across several seasons and across multiple clubs.
Against the backdrop of a transfer embargo and the threat of liquidation, he had to learn fast, spinning various plates while his side were being deducted 21 points. Rooney emerged with plenty of credit for the way in which he conducted himself.
Derby would have stayed up by 14 points had there been no such penalties for sinking into administration. The landscape is not so volatile in a competition where the jeopardy of relegation still doesn't exist, but the bar of expectation will still be set very high.
"Last season, DC United brought in a new coach called Hernan Losada and they almost made it to the play-offs," commentator Johnson continues. "They made a serious push and played an entertaining brand of football.
"Quite frankly, the fanbase was energised by that but this season started poorly. Six games in, Losada was fired and Chad Ashton was made interim head coach. Since then, there has been three wins, six losses and two draws. Most recently, they lost 7-0 away from home against Philadelphia Union - the biggest defeat in the club's history.
"I don't think the situation with Rooney suddenly developed as a result of such a heavy loss. It must have been in the works for some time, but it's been a difficult season. They've had to pivot from head coaches.
"There was already talk of Rooney moving into the management side when he arrived here four years ago as a player. But having curtailed that particular chapter, he's hit the resume button."
Contrary to how some might perceive football in the States, Rooney already has an appreciation for MLS, which remains behind the quality of European leagues with superior history and money but continues to make major strides.
Columbus Crew visit Audi Field in the early hours of Thursday morning UK time so Rooney will have the immediate chance to run the rule over his squad.
The Washington Post claims he will operate as consultant until he is granted a work permit, which takes up to three weeks. The transfer window, as it was four years ago, remains open for business so Rooney will have the opportunity to recruit players to his roster.
The appeal to work under him will certainly still endure. The attraction to play for DC United is now far greater than it was the last time the side left the field, against Philadelphia.
"I don't think anyone who would blow your mind is going to be heading their way," Johnson admits. "They are bringing in a very talented Chilean winger named Martin Rodriguez, they recently acquired Taxi Fountas who has nine goals and three assists in the first 10 games of his MLS career, so they might well still be able to make a play-off push.
"Unlike in England, half the team in each Conference make the play-offs so the picture isn't as bleak as it seems. The season is not over even though they're joint bottom. It remains to be seen if Rooney coming in as a manager will make a difference."
Rooney the player had leadership, talent, experience, character and work ethic. Rooney the manager is still relatively unproven in this regard. Taking the scenic route to the upper echelons of coaching, via the Championship and now MLS, is one less trodden but he is still learning about himself.
DC United fans would do well to remember the manner in which he stuck by Derby last term despite being offered the job at Everton.
The episode demonstrated a maturity, a decision dictated by the head over his heart, but history has shown that famed footballers don't always make brilliant managers, especially when the passion for a particular club gets in the way of progress.
Rooney was raised on the tales of Alan Ball - the greatest of them all at Everton - but the 1966 World Cup winner had just one manager of the month award in 1995 to show for his time on the other side of the white line during a coaching career which spanned seven clubs (two spells at Portsmouth) and started in the States at Philadelphia Fury.
Experiencing the turmoil at Derby will stand Rooney in good stead for what lies ahead. DC United sit 13th in the Eastern Conference after 17 games, level on points with rock bottom Chicago.
Prising one of the game's biggest stars is a strong flex from the owners at the Washington-based club with the first team currently flagging. No business is immune from the financial repercussions of a global pandemic, and the DC United hierarchy sees bringing Rooney back as the face of the brand as a sure-fire way of selling out a 20,000-capacity stadium.
The locals will need plenty of convincing, however, that Rooney's focus is solely on inspiring an upturn in fortunes and not on any aspirations of using the club as a stepping stone to future endeavours. There are grounds for optimism.
His time navigating the myriad obstacles at a crisis-stricken club underlines his resilience and refusal to accept defeat. He has been described as DC United's new "fearless leader", having shown that he "knows how to lead a group through adversity."
Neither a premature end to his first spell nor his family's struggles to settle at their rented home in Bethesda has dissuaded Rooney - Croxteth's back streets boy turned man - from pursuing his own American dream.