Analysis

Stuck in the past? What D.C. United’s pursuit of Wayne Rooney tells us about the team’s self-image

D.C.'s pursuit of Wayne Rooney feels like a move from a club that understands the need for new ideas – but just can’t seem to come up with any.

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There are big moves, and then there are big moves that also happen to be the right moves.

D.C. United’s high-profile, high-risk pursuit of Wayne Rooney – an apparent attempt at regaining relevancy for a Major League Soccer team that has gone out of fashion – is definitely a big move. It’s just hard to say that it’s the right move.  

There is still plenty we don’t know about Rooney’s potential dash for MLS cash, including whether it will even happen.

We also don’t have a good handle on the numbers, which will help dictate the conversation. Is D.C. spending smart or over-spending for a has-been rather than purchasing a couple of young pace-setters for less? Atlanta United sure found a couple of fresh, juicy peaches on the better side of age 30.

We don’t know whether Rooney will bring an empty bag of performances, whether his best was shed years ago at Old Trafford. He’s 32 now with a lot of hard miles on those tires, and it’s worth asking if his fair skin will cotton to harsh American summer sun, not to mention regular travel demands unlike he’s ever known.

But there certainly are things we can already glean simply from D.C. United’s pursuit, about the club and what it wants to be.

There’s a lurking danger that organizational thinking is stuck in another time, still a slave to preferred methods of former, better years. Even if this deal falls apart, just looking Rooney’s way seems instructive.

The ‘new MLS’ is now about building an authentic supporters’ culture inside great urban stadiums, and about mixing Homegrown Players and international stars of the future; D.C. United seems to have missed the memo on the latter, which means it may be about to miss its moment.

United now has the show horse stadium in Audi Field, which opens in July. Undoubtedly, chasing Rooney or some other splashy name to fill the marquee is attached to the stadium opening. If manager Ben Olsen and the club’s technical staff truly believe Rooney can be a 14- to 16-goal scorer in MLS, and if they can reel in this English fish at a reasonable price, well, fair enough. But it doesn’t feel that way, does it?

It feels like a move from a club that understands the need for new ideas – but just can’t seem to come up with any. In the absence of those, it defaults to the known glory days of MLS 1.0. Those accomplishments of the ‘90s – champions three of the first four seasons – established DCU as one of the original power clubs. But that was then.

Signing Rooney sounds like a default to the muscle memory of those wonder years. It feels like a safe move – or what the organization’s leaders incorrectly believe to be the safe move.

Getting past first-layer questions

Would Rooney work as a player? We’ll see. Performance of the aging Europeans in MLS is mostly about two things. First, does the player care? Does he have enough emotional investment in the deal, sufficient regard for his new surroundings that he’s willing to put in the work? Not just on game day, but in understanding the league and culture to the point that supports performance. Beyond that it’s mostly about his body. Has he kept enough mobility and energy to overcome the hardships particular to MLS, the heat and travel?

Honestly, we just don’t know the answers – so that’s a conversation best left for later.

As for the organization, one that needs to look at the long game here. The club does need to renew its license on relevancy in the marketplace around the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland. It does have this new facility to fill, and a move for Rooney (or some other name of significant heft) will indeed provide an audible bang. But what then?

There’s no doubt that Rooney will continue to attract a few looks from the non-soccer world. But what is the value of that in modern MLS? Consider the arguments for Rooney They sound something like: ‘He will make the average sports fan pay attention – then it’s up to the club to make them D.C. United fans.’ Those have a ring of truth – but there’s a hole in that donut: those are soccer marketing arguments that have mostly hit their expiration date. Those are the fading echoes of MLS 1.0, save for a rare total package like Zlatan Ibrahimovic in LA, where street cred is part of the equation.

Thus, it feels like D.C. United is still playing the short game, still gluing together the old MLS models. At a perfect moment for rebranding as a club, for erasing the whiteboard and creating a modern D.C. United brand and future, a move like this would seem the equivalent of being content to heat up old soup.

Meanwhile, teams like Atlanta and LAFC are the fancy street tacos and poke joints. They are young and hip and leaning forward, MLS clubs embracing the new ways – certainly not ones interested in dipping back into old playbooks.

While United kicks the tires on the idea of signing Rooney, other MLS teams have stacked their organizational brands on academies and young stars. They invest in modern art rather than old relics. They sign players for on-field contributions, not to scratch an itch for greater mainstream buzz.

A little faith, please

Part of this is about D.C. United showing some faith. Some belief in growth of the domestic game. Some faith in its local market, one that has always embraced quality soccer. It’s not even blind faith; it’s a premise backed by quality, league-level market research. Studies show plenty of fans out there who will get behind a local club – assuming it has a little market credibility and bit of momentum.

United has that, even if it’s in been in storage for a while. The team can embrace its heritage and try to recreate achievement, but through modern approaches. And the team already has its launching point in Audi Field.

Stadiums are big stars in modern MLS markets: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta United) and Banc of California Stadium (LAFC) are as different as can be, one a multi-purpose megadome and the other an outdoor ground with a quarter of the capacity – but with a genuine soccer feel. Both can work in this new MLS world, so long as the branding around it fits. But either way, they have a feel of progress, of something that pushes the league forward, toward the millennials and the willing soccer crowds.

An old English guy who made his name at Manchester United? That feels very 2004 – back when we were all watching Friends, when we all still thought Freddy Adu was the one.

The world moves on. Some of it does, anyway.

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