MLS: Can Wayne Rooney drag DC United from last place to glory

Wayne Rooney knows exactly what it’s like to be struggling at the bottom of the table but his grit, ability to motivate players devoid of confidence and his no-nonsense bold decisions (just like he showed at Derby!) gives DC United hope

  • Wayne Rooney’s first game in charge of DC United resulted in 2-1 win vs. Orlando
  • United are bottom of the Eastern Conference – two points behind Toronto
  • Rooney has overseen four signings since becoming head coach on July 12 
  • The capital club faces Gareth Bale and MLS West leaders LAFC on August 16

Wayne Rooney is used to being at the bottom. 

Never during his playing career, yet, his coaching life hasn’t been so fortunate. Ever since taking the leap onto the sidelines, hardship has become his habitat. 

Rooney has walked into similar surrounds in both of his head coaching roles. First at Derby County in England’s Championship and now with DC United in the MLS.

Both teams resided last in their respective leagues when Rooney took to the sidelines.  

The player-turned-head coach officially signed on with DC United on July 12, following the sacking of Hernan Losada

Rooney oversaw a dramatic escape from relegation during his first season in management before Derby succumbed to an inevitable, unavoidable end to their time in the second division. 

While relegation isn’t on offer for DC United, there is plenty of work ahead of Rooney, his staff and players. 

As it stands, DC United are the joint most successful club in American soccer history, alongside Pele’s New York Cosmos and the MLS’ Galacticos, LA Galaxy. 

The Black and Red have won four MLS Cups, four Supporters Shields, three US Open Cups and a CONCACAF Champions League title. 

Rooney is largely familiar with the infrastructure, off-field personnel and even some of the players — similar to his time at Derby County

Now they are a long way from the once familiar feeling of success. United’s last title was almost a decade ago, winning the US Open Cup in 2013. 

During Rooney’s two-year playing stint, the capital club were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs and the Round of 16 in both campaigns.

Thirteen games are left in the 2022 MLS regular season and there is still much to play for. Pride aside, Rooney and his players will be looking to prove they can survive and succeed at the level. 

Here, looks at how Rooney can use his experience at Derby to help turn United’s fortunes around… 

Rooney excelled during his playing career with DC United, scoring 23 times in 48 appearances

Rooney became a fan favorite at Derby County thanks to his loyalty and commitment to their troubled cause

Ability to galvanize his players amid adversity 

The struggles on the pitch at Pride Park were underpinned by turmoil off it. Derby were under a transfer embargo from the summer of 2020, unable to pursue new players or even resign existing players, whose contracts were set to expire.

Owner Mel Morris, a passionate Derby fan, who made his money by investing in the startup behind the mobile game Candy Crush Saga, has mismanaged the club.

In a desperate bid to reach the Premier League, Derby had overspent disastrously and breached EFL financial rules along the way.

From the beginning of Rooney’s management, Morris was trying to sell the club, but could not find a buyer. Eventually, in September 2021, Derby was placed into administration.

‘Roo’ had a fantastic relationship with the majority of Derby’s playing squad in the 2020/21 and 21/22 seasons

If the situation was difficult in the 2020-21 season, it became impossible following administration during the subsequent campaign.

Still under a transfer embargo, Derby were down to the bare bones, but in addition, points deductions began to pile up, too.

In total, 21 points were deducted for financial rule breaches and going into administration. As the season wore on, the administrators struggled to find a buyer willing to part with the £50M thought to be needed to rescue the club, which was now heading for League One.

The debts were eye-watering and included around $37million owed to the tax man.

Derby were left with the bare bones from Rooney’s first-year squad with the club in financial ruin for the 21/22 season

Inevitably, Derby had to reduce costs and out of contract players left, others were sold, including promising youth prospects who went for next to nothing.

Despite the hopeless situation, Rooney galvanized his players and mounted a spirited rear-guard action. He embraced the harsh hand he was dealt and not give up.

For a moment it looked like the Great Escape may actually be on, but in the end the pressure of the points deduction forced Derby down and they were relegated as the second bottom club, seven points from safety.

Despite the lack of players, without the deductions, they would have survived easily in 17th place.

DC United represent a fresh challenge and a much less complicated off-field landscape

Loyalty to the project

DC’s tale of the tape  

United’s MLS record in the last five seasons

2018-  R1 playoff loss. 9th placed finish

2019- R1 playoff loss. 10th placed finish. 

2020- DNQ for playoffs. 24th overall.

2021 – DNQ for playoffs. 16th overall.

2022 – Currently last in EC. 27th overall.

Rooney handled himself with great dignity at Derby, even as the administration process foundered.

He refused to be tempted by links to management jobs at his former club, Everton, or then-Premier League side Burnley.

The effort to save Derby from ruin extended well beyond the club and became a focus for the entire city, with Rooney at the heart of it. 

The fight of the players epitomized the spirit in the industrial town.

In April, Rooney threw his weight behind an American investor, Chris Kirchner, who wanted to take over the club. In the end that bid collapsed, which was a blow to the club and to Rooney. 

He had struck up a good relationship with the prospective owner and thought he could see a way forward.

At the 11th hour, local property developer – and another Derby fan – David Clowes announced a bid to buy the club after purchasing D Pride Park stadium.

His company Clowes Developments (UK) Ltd, provided a loan to the club to allow them to start next season.

However, with a year left on his contract, Rooney told the administrators, he would like to be ‘relieved of his duties as first-team manager’ with immediate effect.

‘I feel the club now needs to be led by someone with fresh energy and not affected by events that have happened over the last 18 months,’ he said.

He was loyal and committed to the Pride Park cause. 

Rooney is beloved not only in DC but in his homeland, including pockets of the Midlands, Liverpool and Manchester

Close relationship with the fans 

Stats that matter 

DC United after 21 games

– Fewest scoring attempts (226)

– Eq. fewest on target attempts (75)

– 3 clean sheets out

– Second-most goals against (44)

– 20th in goals for (28)

– Second worst goal difference (-16) 

The former Everton, Manchester United and England forward said he had been ‘closely following developments’ regarding the ownership of the club.

‘My time at the club has been a rollercoaster of emotions, both highs and lows, but I have to say that I have enjoyed the challenge,’ Rooney added.

‘I will remember my time at Derby with great pride and affection and would like to thank all my staff, players and of course the fans for their incredible support. 

‘I will never forget you and hope to see you all again in the near future and in happier times.

‘Finally, I am aware that the club still have interested parties who wish to take over the running of the club. 

‘To them I say this, Derby County is a great club with a great history and great fans. I wish you all the best and much success for the future.’

Before he announced his departure, Derby city councilors took a decision to grant him the freedom of the city for his ‘great commitment’ to the city and for ‘galvanizing and revolutionizing’ the Rams fanbase.

Rooney will always be afforded a hero’s welcome in Derby. 

Without his resolve and focus the club could have unraveled, but he maintained a purpose in the most hopeless circumstances, which eventually bought enough time for a buyer to be found.

Rooney gains a deep respect given the historic playing career he had for both club & country

Brave and bold decisions 

Rooney’s players gifted him the dream debut with a rousing come-from-behind victory over Orlando City Sunday night. 

The home side trailed following a beautiful chip from City forward Junior Urso on nine minutes. 

Orlando ran riot in the first half and had countless opportunities to extend their lead to two, three or four.

United clung on and produced a much improved performance after the break, undoubtedly reenergized by their coach.

Ravel Morrison will be hoping to fill the much-needed creative void for the capital club 

‘I believed we would win the game,’ Rooney told reporters postgame. ‘But the one thing we had to do was up the tempo,’ 

‘I asked the team at halftime to be more positive, to put the work in. I thought the second half was excellent.

Two of Rooney’s substitutions were critical to the 2-1 turnaround, with both providing assists for the equalizer and eventual winner. 

Ola Kamara was brought on in the 70th minute, supplying striker Chris Durkin with a perfectly weighted slide rule pass to tie the game.

Kimarni Smith was one of Rooney’s substitutes who came on and changed the game Sunday

Forward Kimarni Smith had only been on the pitch seven minutes before drilling a low cross for Taxiarchis Fountas to turn home, cueing rapturous celebrations in the DC rain. 

‘The players needed that. This season has to start now. They’ve had some bad results in the first half of the season,’ he said.

‘We can’t rest and think ‘we’ve won a game’ we have to be consistent and we have to go on a run.’

Rooney’s squad have the opportunity to extend their winning streak in North Carolina as they take on Charlotte FC, who sit just five points ahead, having played an extra game. 

Since Rooney was announced as the head coach, the team have made efforts to improve the squad with immediacy. 

Derby and Manchester United ties have already been used to secure the signing of Ravel Morrison, who played most recently for Rooney at Pride Park. 

The 29-year-old Jamaican international made his debut alongside Rooney last Sunday, playing the entire 90 minutes. 

Ola Kamara off the bench against Orlando, assisting Chris Durkin for his side’s equalizer

DC have also brought in goalkeeper David Ochoa and striker Miguel Berry from Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew respectively. The club also added Icelandic international defensive midfielder, Victor Palsson, from German Bundesliga club, Schalke.

Berry started Sunday’s game against Orlando before being substituted on 70 minutes.

With the transfer window now shut until season’s end, Rooney will have to make do with the squad he has for the remaining months. 

Admired and respected by players

Recent signing Ravel Morrison has played with, and for, Rooney during his time at Manchester and Derby.

Upon his arrival in the nation’s capital, he revealed just what it’s like to learn from the 120-time England international.

‘He’s got that respect because [of] obviously the way he is, the style of football he plays and the player he was,’ he said, via DC United.

‘Working with Wayne is enjoyable. He’s a great manager and I think he’s got a great career ahead of him. He could come here and change a lot.’ 

Icelandic international Victor Palsson will provide security in the middle of the pitch for DC

While Rooney may be perceived as an intimidating presence, owing to his illustrious career, he is known to have a softer side when it is called for.

‘We’ll be eating lunch, and he’ll be looking over at a player, he’ll say, “I need to speak to him. Something’s up. The way he’s eating his food – he doesn’t normally eat like that.”

‘That’s the level of detail he’ll go into,’ explained Liam Rosenior, Rooney’s assistant at Derby, via The Athletic. 

‘He can just smell it in people. It’s a gift. There’s empathy; a soft side to him that I don’t think has been reflected. And actually, that has been his greatest strength.’

Success in familiarity?

Rooney’s departure from DC in 2019 was born out of family reasons, primarily their desire to be around closer to home comforts. 

At the time, Rooney said in a statement; ‘The supporters in the Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava and District Ultras have made my time in America so enjoyable. 

‘Family is everything to us and we make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England.’

The Liverpudlian has spoken previously about his love for Georgetown and the lifestyle afforded to him in the US capital. 

Rooney is considered a Manchester United legend – he scored 183 times in 393 appearances

Rooney is also comfortable with many of the top brass at DC United. While back in England, the 36-year-old kept in contact with CEO Jason Levein, Rory Molleda — the team’s director of team administration — and former teammate Steve Birnbaum.

There are familiar faces off the pitch, most notably Rooney’s former assistant at Derby, Pete Shuttleworth, who looks set to join D.C.’s coaching staff. 

Frederic Brilliant played alongside Rooney and is now one of the club’s assistant coaches. 

Like at Derby, Rooney has an acute awareness of the structure he is operating within. With lesser off-field chaos virtually guaranteed, Rooney could be poised to establish himself – and the club – as a force in the US once more.

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