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Rooney To D.C. United

Wayne Rooney, record goalscorer for both the English National Team and Manchester United, is coming to MLS. It was recently reported by the Washington Post that he signed a 2 ½ year deal with DC United worth about $13 million total or $5.2 million per year. As was reported by the BBC, there was no transfer fee involved.

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Before we address the “MLS-is-a-retirement-league” arguments, I’d like to look at the transaction from more of an objective standpoint.

It’s great for DC United that it did not have to pay a transfer fee for Rooney. I’m not sure it could be justified given his age and relative drop in performance over the last season for Everton.

For me, this move is relatively simple to judge. Rooney needs to contribute on average 23 goals (through scoring and/or assisting) per season to justify that price tag. His compensation number would put him as the 7th highest paid player in the league (per annum) based on the MLSPU salary figures that were released in May. The production of the highest paid forwards/goal-scoring midfielders in the top 10 of MLS salaries nets out to about 0.8 goals contributed per match. That number includes the awful production from Gio dos Santos, so 23 goals contributed is definitely a reasonable expectation for Wazza.

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I don’t expect Rooney to play all matches, but if he plays the average of what the top forwards played last year, he should play in 28 matches per season, so I can reasonably expect that he should contribute about 23 goals per season. If he exceeds that in his time in MLS, he did well. If he falls well below that number, he did poorly.

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MLS is a very tough league to adapt to when joining mid-season. We’ve seen many players struggle when joining in the summer before becoming successes in MLS the following season. I’m willing to give Rooney time before I judge this move. I wouldn’t be shocked if he isn’t able to hit a rate of 0.8 goals contributed for the 2018 season, but my expectation is that he needs to hit that amount next season. A full offseason, time to get used to new teammates, and the ability for the front office to construct a roster better suited to his game should all help for the 2019 season.

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Now, let’s talk about Rooney’s playing style and if that is a fit for MLS. Wayne is 32 years old. David Villa joined at a similar age (32 and was a great success) and so did Robbie Keane (although he was late 20’s). There have been countless other examples of older European attackers who did not fare as well. Most aging European players have found success by coming to MLS and treating it with the intensity and passion that they had in Europe. If Rooney can do this, I think his game could fit nicely. There’s always a place for goalscorers in any league and, although Rooney is not as mobile as he used to be, if DC can surround him with creative players and runners from the wings, he can be a success.

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Another factor that we (the fans & public) will likely not be able to see is his impact on his teammates, particularly younger players. Younger pro athletes learn a ton from mentors and leaders on their team. A former world class player like Rooney can offer training tips and seemingly small pieces of advice to other players, which may greatly help their development. Rooney sees the game from a different perspective because he’s played at the highest levels, and if young DC attackers and/or future homegrown players can pickup tips from him, these could prove to be invaluable to their own development. This one is tough to judge but it should be highlighted.  

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There are other, off-field factors that play into this signing as well. DC United is opening their brand-new stadium (Audi Field) in the city of Washington D.C. on July 14. Having a well-known player like Wayne Rooney, even if he is past his prime, can attract people to the stadium who otherwise may not have come out. We all like to think the product on the field should speak for itself, but the reality is if D.C. signed the next Miguel Almiron from South America instead of Wayne Rooney, it would not have generated the same amount of media buzz. This signing is a business decision as much as it is an on-field decision. I understand that.

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Lastly, the signing of Wayne Rooney is not an indictment on DC United, MLS soccer, and/or American soccer. People will try to spin the narrative that another aging European star is coming to MLS, MLS is a retirement league, soccer will never grow here if we keep signing these old players, etc. These are tired, ill-informed arguments. According to this article on MLSSoccer.com, the average age of designated players to start the 2018 MLS season was 27.3 years old. That is the prime age for professional soccer players. And the article also cites that the average age of newly signed designated players in the offseason was 23.5 years old. The near-term future of MLS is attracting the best young talent from North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean, before those players are sold onto Europe. Atlanta United, LAFC, and FC Dallas are leading this trend and I expect most MLS teams to follow this path moving forward.

Wayne Rooney is an intriguing signing for DC United. Does he make D.C. better right now? Yes. Does he make D.C. overnight title contenders? Hell no. He’s an interesting signing for the league and I’m looking forward to seeing how he adapts to playing outside of England, which is something he’s never done before. I’m willing to give him time to adjust and think he’ll ultimately do well. But, the move is a big investment and risk from D.C. The pressure will be on Rooney and if he’s not performing early in the 2019 season, it could be disastrous for United. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.

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If you like what I wrote here, please consider checking out some of my other stuff. I am currently recording daily videos and podcasts for the World Cup with my two brothers called Bros Talking Soccer. And I also have a YouTube channel called The Soccer Tavern where I make videos about the history, culture, and philosophy of the beautiful game.

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