Another aging star is coming to Major League Soccer, this time Wayne Rooney.
But unlike Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with the LA Galaxy back in March, the emotions surrounding Rooney’s arrival are a bit more mixed. That isn’t to say Ibrahimovic’s signing was completely free of doubt. His health, in particular, given his recovery from major knee surgery, was a concern, but the Swede has largely delivered, and there was a sense that it was a move that MLS had to make given his charisma. Rooney’s arrival doesn’t reach that level.
With that in mind, here’s how the move shakes out for all involved.
What does the move mean for Rooney?
It means the same as it does for every other past-their-prime player who comes to MLS. He gets to keep playing professionally while remaining incredibly well-paid. The expectations will remain largely the same. He’ll be expected to carry the team, score goals and give fans a reason to keep coming back to soon-to-open Audi Field.
But there will be plenty that he won’t be used to beyond the obvious fact that MLS isn’t the Premier League. On the plus side, there will be greater anonymity than he experienced in England. But there will also be cross-country flights, extreme weather and reporters in the locker room. He will be expected to be an ambassador for the sport in North America. Ibrahimovic has embraced this, but Rooney isn’t the extrovert that Ibrahimovic is. One hopes that someone has sat Rooney down and explained all of these additional expectations. Granted, it’s not the same as going through it, but it can make for a softer landing.
What does the move mean for D.C. United?
The Black-and-Red will get a high-profile name to christen its new home venue. DCU have been crying poor for much of the past decade, and with the new stadium about to come online, it sends a signal to fans that the purse strings have indeed loosened. Will he move the needle? Yes, but it’s unclear how sustainable it is. If Rooney doesn’t deliver on the field, and more important, if the team continues to struggle, his arrival won’t have much staying power.
But more than anything, the hope for DCU is that Rooney’s signing means goals, and lots of them. The Black-and-Red rank near the bottom of the 23-team league in most offensive categories, including 19th in goals per game. Perhaps the bigger concern is who on the current roster will get him the ball? Finishing actually hasn’t been DCU’s problem; chance creation has been, with the team averaging a league-worst five chances created per game. Now part of that is down to the road-heavy schedule in the early going, and more reinforcements may arrive in the summer as well, but it points out the fact that DCU needs to do more to improve the side than simply stick Rooney on the field.
What does the move mean for MLS?
This is a move that doesn’t help fight the perception that MLS is a retirement league. Sure, 111 new players have joined from outside North America for the 2018 season, with an average age of 25. But those performers don’t stick in the memory like a Rooney does. What people remember instead is the fact that he’s dropping down a level.
It sets up a mixed bag at best for MLS. Yes, Rooney will help sell tickets. He will give the league’s international profile another nudge. Yet MLS can’t win in the perception department. If Rooney tears it up, the lower level of competition is made clear. If he doesn’t, MLS looks like they got snookered.
How does Rooney compare to others who came at a similar age?
At 32, Rooney is of comparable age to other global stars — Thierry Henry (32), David Villa (33), David Beckham (32), Robbie Keane (30) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (32) — when they joined MLS, all of whom were huge contributors to their respective teams. But having been playing first-team football at a high level since the age of 16, Rooney seems to have a bit less tread remaining on the tires than even Schweinsteiger, whose age and durability were significant concerns when he signed with the Chicago Fire last season. The German World Cup winner has since proved the doubters wrong and has been a key player for the Fire since his arrival. Rooney can only hope he’s as influential.
What should we expect, given his decline and the team he is joining?
Rooney is as competitive as they come, with an immense will to win and score goals. That hasn’t changed. But his physical decline means he won’t score a ton, at which point the financial heft it took to bring him in will gain greater attention. It’s possible his presence will have a knock-on effect, preventing opponents from focusing on the likes of Yamil Asad and allowing a bit more space to exploit, but it likely won’t be enough.
Is this a good or a bad move?
I have a hard time summoning up much enthusiasm for this move. Personally, I prefer to watch an up-and-coming talent like Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco than I would Rooney. Perhaps that’s down to the psychology of watching a player whose ceiling you know will get higher as opposed to one you know is in decline. I suspect Rooney will have his moments, and DCU will likely be better for having the Englishman on board, but given the team around him, it won’t live up to the hype.
There’s also the fact that the best teams in MLS are not going the route of bringing in a player like Rooney. Of the league’s elite, only New York City FC, with Villa, has what one could call an aging star, but after its experience with Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, NYCFC has backed away from this approach and gotten considerably younger, with its acquisition of Jesus Medina a prime example. The others — Toronto, Sporting Kansas City, Atlanta United and LAFC — have shunned bringing in past-their-prime stars. MLS is at a point where this is no longer the path to success.
The fact that DCU has gone this route just feels a bit desperate. For the money it cost to bring in Rooney, it likely could have acquired three exceptional players. That, more than Rooney, would lead to a winning team that will ensure Audi Field stays packed to capacity.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.