Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Wayne Rooney hoped to make a big impact on Wednesday night in his first home game since he announced he would be leaving D.C. United at the end of the season.
Rooney did have a major influence on the game against his team’s biggest rivals, the New York Red Bulls. Just not in the way he intended.
Twenty four minutes in at Audi Field, a referee showed Rooney a red card for his forearm blow to the chin of a Red Bulls player. Though United would eventually draw level on players after a New York red card, Rooney’s side still fell to a demoralizing 2-1 defeat.
The United captain sounded subdued after the game but clearly seethed about the night’s events.
“I think anyone who knows the game of football can see what the intent was,” Rooney said. “It was to try and ease the player out and the referee’s seen it as a red card, so I’m very disappointed.”
Considering how things have gone for United and Rooney of late, Wednesday night’s game couldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.
“We’re in a little bit of a rut right now and we need to get out of it,” United defender Steve Birnbaum said.
After starting the season with seven wins in its first 12 games, United has won just three of its subsequent 16 matches. The team once competed for top spot in the Eastern Conference, but there’s an increasing chance it can miss the playoffs.
Rooney announced earlier this month that this would be his final season with United, as the striker prepares to join English second-division side Derby County as a player-coach and leave D.C. United two seasons before his contract with the club was set to expire.
Since announcing his intent to leave United, pretty much anything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Rooney.
He missed a game with illness. He was taken out of Saturday’s game at Vancouver and audibly swore at an official. He then took to Twitter after to gripe about D.C. United’s lack of a charter flight out of Vancouver. (“Looking forward to a 12 hour travel day which could be done in six but hey this is MLS,” he tweeted.)
And then there was Wednesday night’s red card. Though clearly perturbed by the referee’s decision, Rooney declined to elaborate more on his initial comments after a week that had already seen him opine a fair amount.
“I need to be careful with what I say after what I said last week and then the red card today,” Rooney said.
United head coach Ben Olsen denied that he’d seen any kind of a change in his star striker since he announced he’d be leaving the club.
“No, he’s been business as usual,” Olsen said. “Some of these things are popping up though: he’s sick and [then] this, the red card.”
Rooney and his teammates should have some added motivation to turn things around quickly, as the coming homestretch of the season may represent the last go round for many of the team’s key players.
Playmaker Luciano Acosta is expected to move abroad after his contract expires while other starters like Bill Hamid, Leonardo Jara, and Lucas Rodriguez are all on loans that expire at season’s end. Paul Arriola has also been subject to transfer interest from abroad.
Add that to Rooney’s departure and United could have a much different look next season. Still, the team’s players are taking a potential offseason revamp in stride.
“Obviously losing key players is difficult but it’s also part of the cycle of football and part of being a professional player, players coming in and out,” Arriola said.
Olsen also denied that any impending departures are adding an extra sense of urgency to turn things around.
“I felt extra urgency six weeks ago, and then six weeks before that,” Olsen said. “There’s always urgency. Yeah down the stretch, it becomes a little more crucial to pick up points, especially in the spot we’re in … The urgency is just because we’re down the stretch, because we need to win and we want to reward our fans.”
Those fans will be dismayed with what they’ve seen from their team in recent months. United now have six regular season games plus a possible playoff run to ensure this group of players signs off on the right note.
“You can change the course of a season in a game, Olsen said. “It can happen really quickly … I think there’s a group in there that can do it, but that’s got to happen soon.”