MLS Icons, Dwayne De Rosario: Mr. Clutch

Illustration: John Sheehan

The Canadian trailblazer found success with five different MLS teams. He had a swagger, and he let his play do the talking.

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Dwayne De Rosario didn’t need to speak to stand out.

Perhaps the best example of his distinctiveness came during the 2001 MLS Cup final between the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy. De Rosario, a second-half substitute for the Quakes, pierced what was a 1-1 game with a bending match-winner into the far right corner.

“All he wanted to do was play,” said Frank Yallop, coach of the Earthquakes from 2001 until 2003. “Say the game had become a little stale; I’d be glancing down to see who my subs were and he’d be sitting at the end of the bench staring at me. It was incredible. Every single time. And I’d be like, ‘OK Dwayne, I got you, buddy. I’ll put you on.’ And almost every time, he’d be unbelievable.”

That moment in 2001, presented during the league’s showpiece occasion, would be the first of many for De Rosario.

Despite his propensity for the spectacular, De Rosario spent much of his early career in San Jose as a reserve. He played regular minutes, but his career resembled something of a closing pitcher, dusted off when the team needed to turn a game in its favor.

“I knew what he was going to do when he came on,” Yallop tells FourFourTwo. “One thing about Dwayne: if he played for five minutes or 90 minutes, he really used his time well. Bringing him on when your opposition has been going for 70 minutes -- it was every defender's nightmare to see him warming up.”

Two years later, during the 2003 MLS Cup final, De Rosario was once again weaving nightmares. This time, San Jose was up 3-2 against the Chicago Fire. A penalty for the Fire was saved by Pat Onstad but left the game delicately poised.

The Quakes needed someone to relieve the pressure, and they found that person in De Rosario, who whipped in a cross for Landon Donovan to finish.

Every teammate has their own De Rosario moment and they all, at some point, summon the word “clutch” when describing him. It’s the defining characteristic of one of Major League Soccer’s most subtly storied players.

Jimmy Conrad talks of an MLS Cup final-winning goal, as does former Houston Dynamo teammate Stu Holden. Charlie Davies enthuses about a hat-trick for D.C. United against Real Salt Lake -- all in a nine-minute span -- while compatriot Julian de Guzman recalls an audacious chip for hometown club Toronto FC during a 3-1 loss to San Jose.

Those moments, stacked up against De Rosario's other achievements -- four MLS Cup titles, an MVP award and a Golden Boot -- in a season during which he played for three teams -- seven all-star nominations, six best XI nominations -- paint an image of a hugely successful career and a much-admired individual. And yet, paradoxically, De Rosario often remains absent from talk of the league’s best ever.

“He definitely opened up doors for Canadians, including myself, to come into the league as Designated Players,” de Guzman said. “DeRo laid out that path for many of us to participate in MLS, and his accomplishments, winning the league numerous times, MVP of the league, All-Star teams. To see a Canadian achieve such a thing, I don’t know if we’ll see a Canadian achieving that for a long time in MLS.”

Whether it be Cyle Larin, Jonathan Osorio, Will Johnson or Tosaint Ricketts, they all walked the road paved by De Rosario. It wasn’t until 2005, three years into his MLS career, that De Rosario began receiving that recognition within the league, even if his unique talent caught the eye long before that.  

“The first time I was introduced to him, we played the Richmond Kickers in the Open Cup and there was just something different about him,” Conrad told FourFourTwo. “I thought his fearlessness and running at people was special. We all walked away wondering, 'Who was that guy and why is he only playing for Richmond?' There was something electric about him.”

Yallop felt that same electricity while working as a scout for D.C. United. It was there that he discovered De Rosario, which in turn allowed him to bring 'DeRo' to San Jose when he took over at the Earthquakes a few months later.

Former colleagues also paint a picture of duality with De Rosario. They describe him as a quiet, kind character off the field, but a ferocious trainer when his boots hit the grass. Holden, now an analyst with FOX Sports, talked about an aggressive trainer who fought for every ball as if his life depended on it.

“Off the field, we had a good relationship but on the field, it was, ‘I’m not giving you an inch kid; you’re going to have to pry it out of my hands,’ ”  Holden said.

That mentality helped Houston, in part, to two MLS Cups -- the third and fourth of De Rosario’s career. His move to Texas not only changed his scenery, but also allowed him to mature into a regular starter and the main-event player that Yallop saw in San Jose.

Dwayne De Rosario

ISI Photos Andrew Katsampes

De Rosario’s self-expression became even more pronounced as he began to regularly play 90 minutes.

“It was always a treat to be on the same field as Dwayne, because you knew he was going to be true to himself,” Conrad explains. “I think there are some players -- maybe every player at some point in their career -- where [they] try to acquiesce to a coach and I think there’s a fine line there where you do that -- play to a system -- but also stay true to who you are and why you play the game.”

De Guzman, in particular, knows DeRo better than most. The pair grew up together on the streets of Scarborough, Toronto, and while many regularly point to what De Rosario did with a ball, it was that same continuity of character that Conrad spotted which impressed his compatriot most.

“He never gets caught up in the hype or the new moment,” de Guzman says. “He stays true to him and that’s why I have huge respect for the guy. I know the guy who grew up in Scarborough is the same DeRo that I know today.”

And it's nestled in de Guzman’s kind words that you stumble upon just what made De Rosario so special. The kid from Scarborough managed to convey his personality, his style and his uniqueness on the field in a relatively quiet way. He did it with every stepover and every big goal, and none of it felt insincere.  

Perhaps that same authenticity also came off as indifferent to those too far away to inspect it. One of De Rosario’s few forays into the media saw him demand a better salary while in Toronto, and even then he conveyed that message on the field in the form of a ‘pay me’ goal celebration (a deviation from his usual 'shake and bake' celebration which was an homage to his friends from the streets of Stockton).

Now retired, De Rosario works for Toronto FC as an ambassador, a role he arguably performed during his playing career. The attacker represented more than just the teams he played for, however. He opened doors for his countrymen, and whether as a sub or a starter, his unique, honest, game-changing play commands the utmost respect.

“I saw an Instagram post of his recently, Holden said, and he said every time he put his shirt on, he never saw it like a professional game; he always saw it like he was just playing in the school yard having fun. He never let the occasion feel too much. I thought that was great, because he really played that way. He was fighting like it was a game amongst his friends that he didn’t want to lose, but he still had the swagger to try things and be audacious.”

That penchant for expression served De Rosario well as he wove a tapestry of memorable moments into MLS history. A Canadian, a midfielder, a trailblazer -- there wasn’t anyone like De Rosario before he arrived in MLS, and it’s unlikely there will be anyone like him in the league again anytime soon.

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