Wayne Rooney’s transfer from Everton to DC United saw him become the latest in a line of high-profile names from England’s ‘Golden Generation’ to ply his trade across the pond.
The move was somewhat overshadowed by the World Cup, as Major League Soccer’s regular season ploughed on regardless while international football’s biggest festival was taking place in Russia. But in the break prior to the beginning of a new Premier League season, the spotlight may now fall on Rooney’s American exploits.
The transfer was reminiscent of previous MLS marquee signings, and visits to the States made by the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, most famously, David Beckham.
The aim of these big-name acquisitions is to raise the profile of the club, and the league as a whole, but they don’t always raise the standard.
In recent times, franchises have looked for different ways to capture the hearts of would-be football fans in their regions.
Clubs such as 2017 expansion side Atlanta United – DC United’s opponents this weekend live on Sky Sports – have gone down an alternative route, signing South American talents who may be on the verge of a move to Europe’s big leagues, but haven’t quite convinced a club to take the plunge.
DC United have tentatively dipped their toe in this market, signing Venezuelan Junior Moreno and Argentine Yamil Asad on loan from Velez Sarsfield. Asad spent last season on loan at Atlanta, and the quirks of the MLS rulebook meant his new club had to send some allocation money to Atlanta as well as arranging the loan with Velez.
But Rooney’s signing was a return to the old days, and the type of transfer which has seen MLS dubbed a “retirement league”, as these big names arrive on North American shores with their reputation still high, but their football ability beginning to wane.
DC United are the most successful of Washington’s major sports teams, having won the both the MLS Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup four times. But when the city’s hockey team, the Washington Capitals, won their first Stanley Cup in early June, the reports hailed the end of a sporting drought in the area, ignoring the success of their soccer club.
Despite the gradual growth of association football in the US and Canada, this type of coverage shows there is still a long way to go.
Granted, DC’s success came some time ago, during the first decade or so of their existence between 1996 and 2007.
A downward spiral followed and saw the club finish bottom of the pile in 2013. If promotion and relegation existed in the US league system they would have been down and replaced by one of the many clubs outside of MLS looking for a chance.
The club are now looking to rekindle past successes and they hope Rooney will be the start of this. He made his debut for DC United against Vancouver Whitecaps last week, putting in an encouraging performance after emerging from the bench to replace Darren Mattocks in the 58th minute.
It wasn’t long before the former Everton and Manchester United man was linking up with his new team-mates, playing the part of facilitator more than the finisher. Just over ten minutes after his arrival, DC United scored a team goal which would light up any league.
This game didn’t just see the introduction of the most high profile signing in DC United history, but also the opening of their new stadium, Audi Field. Having called the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium home since their inaugural season in 1996, the club have relocated to the Buzzard Point based facility.
The new stadium is smaller than their previous home, with a capacity of 20,000 compared to the RFK’s 45,000 which they struggled to even half fill. Playing at Audi Field should improve the atmosphere, and it also provides the city with a ‘soccer-specific’ stadium.
The stadium will have played a part in the Rooney transfer as the club look to fill their new home on a weekly basis. The Vancouver fixture was a sell out, and World Football Index’s Richard Kharman was there to witness it first hand.
“Audi Field really tries to emulate those great English stadiums where the fans are right up on the pitch,” he said. “Walking into the main gate you are basically on the pitch already. The DC fans were in party mode.”
Rooney’s introduction added to the ceremony in this home opener, and season ticket holder Kharman believes that the man handed the No 9 shirt will give the team a newfound belief.
“United’s confidence just switched on and they looked like a new team,” he added. “Everything was going through Rooney and the Englishman made clever passes to free up his teammates. United players fed off that and the passing became more fluid and free flowing. Passes that were tearing apart the Whitecaps defence.”
These early signs are good for DC, and suggest that Rooney will add some value on the pitch as well as off it. The game against Atlanta this weekend will see an intriguing battle between one side bringing new methods and a new identity to MLS, and another looking to rediscover past glories with a good old fashioned marquee signing from England.
David Beckham made his LA Galaxy debut in DC back in 2007, drawing a sell-out crowd in the much bigger RFK Stadium, an event which Kharman describes as “the only time I saw RFK at maximum capacity.”
DC United now have their own former England international, and they’ll be hoping for a similar impact on a weekly basis at Audi Field. If Rooney can bring even a small portion of the success Beckham brought to the league, then his new club will consider his signing a huge success.
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