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When Wayne Rooney joined D.C. United last summer, it felt like a seismic moment for the franchise.
Just as the team was about to move into its new home, Audi Field, United landed one of the biggest names in the soccer universe. It was all coming together.
“This is a seminal moment for our fans and organization,” United chief executive Jason Levien said at the time. “Wayne is a global soccer icon and his presence at D.C. United will elevate our product on the pitch and soccer as a whole in our city and in this country.”
Now, barely a year later, Rooney is on his way out. On Tuesday, United announced that Rooney will be joining English second-division side Derby County in a player-coach role at the end of the 2019 MLS season.
D.C. United and its fans must feel like the rug is being pulled out from under them. Rooney has been extremely successful during his time with the team, tallying 23 goals and 14 assists in 43 regular season appearances. He will leave two years early in a contract that runs through the 2021 season.
Off the field, Rooney helped revitalize a franchise that suffered through years of cost-cutting at decrepit RFK Stadium, leaving United as an afterthought in the D.C. market.
But as successful as the relationship has been, the possibility exists that each side has already extracted close to the maximum benefits from the other.
In addition to a healthy salary, D.C. United gave Rooney the chance to be the focal point of a club again after his skills began to dip ever so slightly near the end of his time in England.
Rooney and his family also appeared to enjoy the relative anonymity of living in the United States after years of being under the heavy scrutiny of British tabloids.
Still, leaving the U.K. has been a double-edged sword. Rooney, who is married with four children, made it clear on Tuesday that he’s leaving D.C. United in large part due to family reasons.
“While the decision to move home was a tough one, family is everything to us and we make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England,” Rooney said in a club statement.
D.C. United gave Rooney plenty and the veteran striker gave United even more in return. But a divorce at season’s end may not be as catastrophic as many fear.
Rooney’s impact at the gate was always going to subside over time, and United’s average attendance in 2019 is 17,393, compared with 19,216 for the club’s games at Audi Field last season.
Though Rooney has maintained a level of individual excellence in 2019, United hasn’t been the same force on the field that it was after the forward’s arrival in 2018. The club is in the midst of a stretch of just two wins in 13 league games and is in danger of being thrown into a heavy fight for a playoff berth.
With Rooney turning 34 in October, there’s a decent chance that even if he’d stayed another two seasons, his best times in D.C. have already passed.
Rooney’s salary will be coming off the books at season’s end, and how United reinvest that money will be vital in an offseason that could be filled with upheaval.
Three of the club’s top players, Bill Hamid, Leonardo Jara, and Lucas Rodriguez, are all on loans that expire at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Luciano Acosta’s contract expires at the end of the season and the Argentine star is eyeing a move abroad. There has also been transfer interest in winger Paul Arriola.
Even with the imminent arrival of striker Ola Kamara from Chinese club Shenzhen, D.C. United could potentially lose a huge portion of its core in the span of the next few months.
How United rebuilds after this season will determine the course of the club for years to come. Rooney has done just about all that he can. Now the future of the franchise will be shaped by new faces.
Photo by GSankary on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.