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Wayne Rooney brings D.C. United unquestioned celebrity and uncertain hope ahead of MLS debut

‘It’s the right time for me,’ Wayne Rooney says of his arrival in Major League Soccer. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

With no shortage of hyperbole, accomplishments or expectations accompanying him, Wayne Rooney arrived in Washington late last month, cast at once as both a savior and an aging curiosity. But for a few days at least, he was just another tourist.

The English soccer star visited the monuments on the Mall and walked around City Center. He went bowling and took in his first baseball game on the Fourth of July at Nationals Park. No matter where he went, he was recognized but not mobbed — a far cry from back home, where he burst onto the scene as a teenage phenom and for years was beloved for his high-motor, high-scoring, emotional play.

“I find it a lot more relaxed going out here,” Rooney said in an interview this week. “Even the people who recognize you tend to leave you alone a lot more and respect your privacy more.”

As D.C. United ushers in a new era Saturday by swinging open the doors on its new $400 million stadium, Audi Field, Rooney is the key cornerstone. As much as any one person, he’ll be charged with writing the next chapter, either helping a young team that has struggled mightily for the past 1½ seasons or serving merely as a marketing novelty whose biggest impact is generating headlines and selling tickets.

He comes to Washington as a player who once earned upward of $30 million because he could find the net like few others in the world, a larger-than-life athlete who’s the career scoring leader for both fabled Manchester United and the English national team.

Michael Jordan is perhaps the only athlete who brought as much international fame and notoriety to Washington. Jordan was, of course, a past-his-prime 38 years old when he joined the Wizards in 2001. Rooney is 32. United, MLS and soccer fans around the world will be watching closely. He’s at once one of the best-known players on the planet and, at the same time, arrives in Washington as a complete mystery.

Can he again be the attacking forward who lit up the scoreboard for Manchester United and the Three Lions? Or have nearly 675 professional matches — plus another 112 with the national team — taken a toll and slowed a player who once looked like he could run forever?

“I believe I can come in and help the team, but also the team obviously can help me,” Rooney said. “It’s the right time for me.”

Rooney’s arrival at Dulles International Airport was an event for D.C. soccer fans. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A heralded arrival

Rooney made the rounds these past two weeks and was greeted with much fanfare across the District. He was met by a few hundred fans when he arrived June 28 at Dulles International Airport. He was introduced to international media at a news conference downtown and this week was a featured speaker at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new stadium. If the excitement and adulation felt slightly familiar for Rooney, that’s because it was.

A year earlier, Rooney made headlines by leaving Manchester United, his team of 13 years, and returning to Everton, his boyhood club. “There will be pressure on me to perform,” he told British reporters then, “but I’m ready to go. I believe I can help move this club forward and be more successful on the pitch.”

There would be no storybook ending in Everton. By midseason, Rooney was moved from his preferred striker position, and the team struggled to post wins. Even before then, though, D.C. United officials were brainstorming their options. They had always targeted a marquee signing to accompany their stadium opening, and in late 2017, Jason Levien, the team’s managing general partner, floated Rooney’s name by General Manager Dave Kasper.

“I said, ‘Do you think we’d ever have a shot at Wayne Rooney?’ ” Levien recalled. “ ‘He’s going back to Everton. Who knows how long he’ll be there? Do you think we’d ever have a chance?’ ”

Kasper and his scouts started digging in deeper, preparing a report, and after the first of the year, Levien called Paul Stretford, Rooney’s longtime agent. Stretford relayed United’s interest to Rooney, who said the inquiry came from “completely out of the blue.” He made no immediate decisions and said he instead went straight to Everton managers.

“I went in and asked the question: ‘Do you want to sell me? If so, let me know; I’m not a child. If not, you want me to stay, let me know,’ ” Rooney recalled. “That was it. A few heres and theres, but from the club, they made it clear that they were happy for me to leave. So obviously that helped my decision.”

Rooney and his wife, Coleen, had talked about someday coming to the United States, but never anything specific, always with an eye cast down the road. He wanted to visit with United officials face-to-face before agreeing to anything, so shortly after the Premier League season ended, he flew to Washington for a 40-hour tour, giving both team and player a chance to feel each other out.

They started the visit at the Audi Field construction site, so Rooney could see the vision, and ended it the next day at aging RFK Stadium, so he could see the team’s history but also the challenges it faced. They visited Washington-area neighborhoods to get a feel for the homes and the schools because, even if he fit in with the team, he wanted his family to feel comfortable in a foreign community.

News leaked out in both Washington and England that a deal could be imminent, and that United’s biggest hurdle might be negotiating Rooney’s purchase rights from Everton. Word of MLS luring one of the biggest Premier League names overseas buzzed quickly around the soccer world.

“My oldest one actually heard it on the radio first,” Rooney said. “So I had to explain that one.”

Rooney’s first night in the District ended with a meal at a high-end Navy Yard restaurant with the United principals. They discussed the vision and the challenges and the commitment needed on both sides. Rooney was happy with the terms on the table — a 2½ -year guaranteed contract worth about $13 million — and before the meal was over, he told the them, “I’m all-in.”

“I just reassured them,” he recalled. “I said: ‘Listen, I’m here. My terms were agreed. The sooner you get that done, whatever you have to do with Everton, I’m here to sign. You don’t have to worry about me going back now and speaking to any clubs or whatever.’ ”

Legacy hire

Life after 30 varies wildly in today’s soccer world. Lionel Messi is 31 and Cristiano Ronaldo is 33, and both are still playing at a high level. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is playing his first season in MLS at 36, and he’s tied for second in the league in goals.

Frank Lampard, on the other hand, was 37 and Steven Gerrard was 35 when they joined MLS, and neither English player came close to replicating his Premier League success. The league’s history books are filled with big names whose best soccer was played before they signed an MLS contract, including stars such as Kaka, Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham, who were productive but not necessarily extraordinary.

United officials say they never would have made Rooney the team’s highest-paid player to simply sell tickets, and the level of play throughout the league has improved to a point that faded stars tend to burn out quickly.

“Any team signing has to be more than a splash,” said Don Garber, the Major League Soccer commissioner since 1999. “To be effective, it really ought to be better than one year. Think of David Villa [for New York City FC] . . . and Diego Valeri in Portland. Michael Bradley and Jose Altidore and Clint Dempsey — these are players who had a sustainable period of success on and off the field. We’re hopeful that’s what we’ll see with Wayne.”

For his part, Rooney says 32 “is actually still quite young in some ways.”

“But for some reason, in my case anyway, people seem to think I’m an old man,” he said with a chuckle.

Such assertions are typically tied to recent production. In 2016-17, Rooney was often left out of Manchester United’s starting lineup. He scored a career-low six goals and also was left off the national team roster. Last season with Everton, he managed a team-high 10 goals — though none in the last 5½ months, when he was positioned as a withdrawn forward.

“We’ve seen many players step into this league at that age and be some of the best players in the league,” said Kasper, the United general manager. “We watched him closely last year with Everton. The guy can still play.”

D.C. United still must decide how to best use him. Everton moved Rooney away from the net, and he stopped scoring. His main charge was creating chances for his teammates, the kind of assignment that doesn’t always show up in the statistics.

“Obviously, I understood [when] you play deeper, you don’t get as many chances,” he said. “Everyone associates me as a forward. So that gets lost a bit: ‘Oh, he didn’t score for the last three months.’ Well, I played a withdrawn role.”

United Coach Ben Olsen hasn’t delved into his exact strategy and plans. While he’s impressed by Rooney’s versatility, he also knows Rooney might be able to provide a scoring touch the team has been sorely missing.

“I want him to put up numbers. I want him to score goals,” Olsen said. “That’s what he’s done for most of his career — actually his entire career.”

Rooney says he’s as capable as ever, even as he acknowledges he’s a different player than the 27-year-old who scored 27 goals in 34 league matches for Manchester United.

“Of course from 20-something to 32 is different,” Rooney said. “I think actually, at 32, you know your body more than you do at 27. You might not be able to run as quick as you could at 27, but you know more the right times to use your energy, to save your energy.”

Even at 32, Rooney’s soccer legacy is surely secured. He said he doesn’t think about it much but, regardless of how this tenure in Washington unfolds, he’ll always be revered and beloved back home. A good run here could elevate his status in North America and provide an exclamation point on a remarkable run.

“I want to do well, and I want my time here to be successful and people to come away when I finish playing here and say, ‘He had an impact and helped D.C. move forward as a club.’ Of course that’s what you want,” Rooney said. “But I have to look at the next game, not ‘this is what I want in three years’ time.’ It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve never thought of how my career or my time here is going to be looked at when I’m finished playing.”

‘I’m here to win’

For such a global star, Rooney’s universe had been relatively small. He grew up in Liverpool, where he went to grade school with his wife and met many of his lifelong friends. The only other time he moved away was when he signed with Manchester United, located all of 35 miles away. While uprooting a wife and four children for Washington was a big move, he says it immediately felt like a comfortable one.

“I’ve been to places like L.A., New York; it’s too hectic,” he said. “It’s like London. For me, I’ve never fancied going to live in London. I need my own space to get away from things when I need to.”

Everton’s season ended in May, and Rooney joined D.C. United two weeks ago straight from vacation. He had been working out in the gym but had barely kicked a ball in the previous month. So prepping for Saturday’s United debut has been a whirlwind of sorts: meeting teammates, learning strategy, getting his legs under him.

“Every day I feel like getting better, fitter,” he said. “For Saturday, I’m not going to be 100 percent fit. I’ve had 10 days to train. So the game will help. The minutes I get on the pitch will help. . . . I’ve done as much training as I can do. I’ll be ready to play minutes Saturday and then keep building up my fitness.”

He has been living in a hotel and has started exploring homes and neighborhoods after practice sessions. He gets around town with the aid of a driver (after a DWI last year, Rooney’s U.K. driver’s license was suspended, though he can apply for a U.S. license when he has time), and he has schools picked out for his children — ages 8, 5, 2 and five months. He hopes to have a house selected by time his family joins him in Washington in a few weeks.

Rooney was brought to United to win but also to introduce a new culture and a new set of expectations for players and fans alike.

“If I believed this team would be at the bottom of soccer for the next three years, I wouldn’t have decided to join here,” he said.

As United begins play Saturday in its shiny new home with its bright new star, the lingering questions about Rooney will be on full display, the spotlight trailing him everywhere he goes, the sport finding meaning in everything he does.

“I’m not here to see out the last few years of my career,” he said. “I’m here to compete. I’m here to win. That’s the way I’ve always played.”

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