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Hundreds of people, a mix of die-hard D.C. United fans and curious onlookers, gather at the terminal inside Dulles International Airport. There is plenty of yelling and cheers. Fans jostle for a position with cell phones in the air, ready to capture the arrival of an international soccer superstar.
“D.C. United!” screams a fan waiting for an autograph.
After months of negotiations, Wayne Rooney is finally here. He finalized a contract over the weekend to join the city’s Major League Soccer team and on this warm summer afternoon, he introduces himself in front of a supportive crowd and signs autographs for about five minutes before departing.
The 32-year-old English international will start training with the club in the coming days. A formal unveiling is planned for Monday.
“It is fantastic to be joining D.C. United at such an exciting time in the club’s history with the new stadium opening in just a few weeks,” Rooney said in a news release. “Moving to America and MLS fulfills another career ambition for me. I have the hunger to be a success here and will give D.C. 100 percent—as I have always done for every team I have ever played for.”
Rooney comes to the District with a pedigree matched by few: five English Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy. He’s been to three World Cups and is the English national team’s all-time leading scorer and Manchester United’s goal king.
He is also a giant off the field, a player who is known by even the most casual soccer fans. With the exception of a handful of names—Ronaldo, Messi, Zlatan—it’s tough to find a more widely recognized player. His 17.2 million Twitter followers are more than all of D.C.’s other pro athletes—and pro teams—combined.
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The signing comes at the perfect time for United, who will move to Audi Field, their new, $400 million home on Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C., in a matter of weeks. Rooney, no doubt, will boost ticket sales at the new venue. He is a key piece in United’s coming-out party, their attempt at re-introducing themselves to a market where they’ve at times become an afterthought. They have spent accordingly: Rooney is reported to be on a $13 million contract, according to The Washington Post, that will keep him in D.C. through the end of 2020.
Off the field, his value is unquestionable. On the field? Well, that remains to be seen.
Rooney is coming off an up-and-down year at Everton that saw him bag 10 goals for The Toffees. None of those goals, however, came in his last five-and-a-half months with the club. He’s spent the past 16 years playing in arguably the most competitive league in the world and has put a lot of miles on those legs. There are certainly United fans who consider him to be past his prime and would much rather see the club ink a younger player, one with more potential for growth.
He joins a long list of international megastars who’ve come to MLS after successful European stints: David Beckham, David Villa, Thierry Henry, Kaká, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard, to name a few. A few worked out great for clubs. Others, like Pirlo and Gerrard, were a waste, contributing to Major League Soccer’s oft-repeated reputation as a “retirement league” where thoroughbreds get put out to pasture.
Rooney will have to contend with D.C’s sweltering summer heat, and a grueling travel schedule as well, though he likely won’t get any extended taste of the road life until 2019, as United play 15 of their remaining 20 matches this year at home.
Rooney did display flashes of his former glory at Everton. His pace has decreased over the years, but his vision remains. Aside from his scoring prowess, Wazza, as he is affectionately known in the U.K., also ranks third all-time in Premier League assists. D.C. United, currently last in the league, is missing a creative spark and Rooney has historically been great at finding teammates in dangerous positions.
Rooney spent most of his storied career as a striker but played in midfield last year for Everton, struggling to make an impact at times. United head coach Ben Olsen seems all but certain to deploy him up top, keeping him closer to goal and limiting the real estate the Liverpool native will have to cover.
Those closest to the club are convinced Rooney can contribute. “Nobody here doubts his motivation for coming, or his ability to contribute,” says a source within the organization who requested anonymity to speak about the signing. “It’s always been about the football to Wayne, and it still is. He’s made that very clear. He’s eager to get to work.”
United fans will have to wait a couple of weeks to see him take the field—Rooney isn’t eligible to play until MLS’ summer transfer window opens on July 10th. His first match, fittingly enough, will coincide with Audi Field’s opener, a July 14th tilt against the Vancouver Whitecaps.