Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta
Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta Credit: COURTESY D.C. UNITED

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Wayne Rooney signed with D.C. United in July to plenty of hype and fanfare. Club officials, players, and fans celebrated the arrival of a legitimate soccer icon and international superstar who represented a badly needed injection of relevance for the franchise.

But no individual has likely been more happy to see Rooney on the team than Luciano Acosta.

Since 2016, Acosta has developed into D.C. United’s focal point, the man who orchestrates the club’s offense. He has often played the role admirably. Other times maybe begrudgingly. At moments in certain games, the pressure seemed like a burden. Acosta–all 5-foot-3 of him–was heavily targeted by opponents, who took every opportunity to kick out at the skillful playmaker. He would appear to be on a different wavelength than his teammates, thinking one or two steps ahead.

Now that Rooney is on the team, Acosta has found the perfect foil. And the results have followed.

Their partnership “has been at a pretty high level from the jump,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said in a press conference earlier this month. “From the second [Rooney] got here they created a very good bond on the field and they’re both very good soccer players. Those guys find each other.”

Prior to Rooney’s arrival, D.C. United had just two wins in its opening 14 games of the season. Since then, United has won seven out of 13 matches, putting itself in position to chase down one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Rooney is a big factor behind United’s turnaround, as is the club’s schedule that has been backloaded with home games after the July opening of Audi Field. But more specifically, it’s the burgeoning partnership between Rooney and Acosta that has done so much to transform Olsen’s team.

Rooney normally plays as a lone striker with Acosta directly behind him as a central attacking midfielder, while at times the former Manchester United star drifts further back to essentially play directly alongside his Argentine counterpart.

The duo’s proximity on the field means they frequently team up for quick passing sequences that spark United’s attack near midfield, and often find each other closer to the opponent’s goal to generate scoring opportunities.

“When you drop Lucho and Wayne back into the center of the midfield, your connections are going to get better, your range of passing, your creativity is going to increase,” Olsen said after United’s 2-1 win over Minnesota United on Sept. 12. “That’s the beauty of Wayne and Lucho is that they have a real versatility about their game. Lucho and Wayne continue to have a good feel for each other, whether it’s up high in the box or in the center of the park.”

It was Acosta who found Rooney for the Englishman’s first MLS goal on July 28 but since then it’s mostly been the reverse, with Acosta finding the back of the net at an unprecedented rate in his career.

During Acosta’s first two and a half seasons with United, he mostly played the role of facilitator. Even at his best, the Argentine was much more of a threat to create goals for others as opposed to scoring them himself.

Rooney’s arrival has changed all of that.

In his pre-Rooney MLS career, Acosta totaled nine goals, which he needed 75games to accumulate. Since the 32-year-old striker’s arrival, Acosta has six goals in just 13 games.

Four of those goals were assisted by Rooney, including one of the most iconic moments in franchise history.

Rooney’s desperation chase and tackle of an Orlando City player deep into stoppage time of a tied game on Aug. 12, followed by his pinpoint long-range delivery to Acosta’s head for a game-winning goal was a moment United could have only dreamed of when the club signed the veteran forward.

The goal not only served as turning point for United’s season but also became a viral sensation, with 2.4 million views currently on the league’s YouTube page. Slate called it the “best seven-second sequence in MLS history,” while British outlet Metro declared the play “one of the greatest assists of all time.”

Acosta’s goal against Orlando City completed his first career MLS hat trick, an achievement that underscored just how much more of a goal threat he has become since Rooney joined D.C. United.

“I keep asking him after games how many goals he’s scored,” Rooney told reporters. “I think he’s starting to enjoy scoring goals.

“Everyone can see the talent and the ability that he’s got. I’ve said to him a few times he should have shot and he hasn’t and he’s tried to do something [else]. When you get in that position [he has to] be clinical and be hungry to score goals.”

The stats don’t tell the full story. Rooney and Acosta also pass the eye test: Their quick interplay and shared vision have made United more watchable, allowing the team to have more possessions and create longer build-ups that lead to scoring chances.

For Acosta, that’s meant opposing defenses focus on him less. The playmaker still carries plenty of the offensive burden for his side, but now the responsibilities are slightly more shared. For him, it’s made all the difference.

In the locker room after the team’s 3-1 victory over Atlanta United in which Acosta scored two goals and Rooney one, Acosta had nothing but praise for his partner on the field.

“He’s a very smart player, a player who has a lot of experience,” Acosta said of Rooney, who is England and Manchester United’s all-time top scorer. “You have to know how to take advantage of it. We’re lucky that he’s on the team and we have to learn from him.”