The weeks and months leading up to a designated player’s debut are filled with all manner of tasks for the performer in question. There are new teammates and coaches with whom to become familiar, as well as a new city. From the outside, the process also involves a microscopic examination of said player’s motives. Every move, both on the field and off, is picked apart by observers checking to see if the player is sufficiently committed to the cause.
In recent years, there have been a few DPs whose actions invited considerable skepticism, beyond what normally accompanies the arrival of a high-salaried player. Frank Lampard’s signing was followed by the news that he would spend the first half of his first MLS season not in MLS with New York City FC, but in England playing in the Premier League for Manchester City. Steven Gerrard announced that he would be serving as a pundit for BT Sport before he had so much as played a minute for the LA Galaxy, adding a few trans-Atlantic flights to his playing commitments.
Outwardly, there was nothing technically wrong with either maneuver. And without question, there was more to the MLS tenure of both players than just these particular events. But they did cast doubts as to the just how seriously their MLS forays were being taken, ones that were eventually validated in that neither player really performed to the degree that one would expect from players with their respective pedigrees. Contrast this with David Villa, who from the beginning has treated his time with NYCFC no differently than he did when he was playing in Spain for the likes of Valencia and Barcelona.
Which brings us to the impending debut of D.C. United’s new signing Wayne Rooney this Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+). There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether Rooney will live up to the two-and-a-half year, $13 million contract he signed, even beyond the fact that the Black and Red are in the Eastern Conference basement.
The years spent in the professional game, and more importantly the mileage, hint at a player at the end of the line. He’s also never played for a club anywhere other than in and around England’s northwest, meaning there’s little track record in terms of the player’s ability to adapt to a new league and new culture.
But if nothing else, Rooney does seem motivated. In an interview with ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, Rooney indicated that Everton “made it clear” he didn’t fit into their plans, thus hastening his move to MLS.
“I don’t think it’s a chip on my shoulder, I think it’s a determination to win and to play,” he told ESPN. “Obviously at Manchester United [getting playing time] wasn’t happening as much as I would have liked and I quite easily could have stayed there with two years left on my contract and picked up the wages and been happy with that and that’s it. But I wanted to play, went back to Everton and had a year there, then as I’ve said before, Everton made it clear towards the end of the season that they’d be happy for me to leave.”
Beyond the source of Rooney’s motivation, his body language and actions so far bode well. He’s barked at veteran and academy player alike. He wanted to travel with the team for last week’s road trip to face the Galaxy, the better to bond with his new team, but was talked out of it so as to work on his fitness. Upon their return, and leading up to Saturday’s match, he’s made the right kind of impression on his new teammates.
“I think it’s easy for players to come into the league and not work hard, or to think that they’re above some other people,” midfielder Paul Arriola told ESPN FC. “But so far Rooney has been a team player, whether it was in a possession game or a small-sided training. He holds you accountable and you hold him accountable, and that’s what he wants. He doesn’t see himself as above anyone else, and the best thing that we can do as a team is treat him just like anyone else.
“Sometimes it’s a bit different because of who he is and what he brings on the field and off, but when he’s on the field he’s just one of 11 players. He’s a humble guy and he wants to be treated just like anyone else.”
A great attitude is no guarantee that Rooney will be effective on the field. His teammates will need to learn how and where he likes the ball. But the approach at least provides a foundation for what might follow, and D.C.’s uptick in offensive production in the past two and a half months — its goals per game of 2.14 since May 1 ranks second in the league — as well as a glut in upcoming home games at least provides hope that he’ll deliver.
The first test comes on Saturday.