How Can D.C. United Get The Best Out Of Wayne Rooney?

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Photo Credit: John A. Babiak @Photog_JohnB

Editorial (August 11, 2018) – A roar reverberated around the StubHub Center on March 31 as legendary Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his MLS debut. His LA Galaxy side were trailing in a high-stakes local derby against Los Angeles FC, but the leonine star shook off the jetlag to turn the game on its head. First, he fired in a stunning equalizer from 35 yards to leave jaws hanging, and then he nodded in a last-minute winner from Ashley Cole’s cross to hand his team a 4-3 victory. “I heard the crowd saying, ‘we want Zlatan, we want Zlatan,’” he said. “So I gave them Zlatan. They were pushing me, and I was giving back.”

How Can D.C. United Get The Best Out Of Wayne Rooney?

A hundred and six days later his former Man Utd teammate, Wayne Rooney, received a similar level of applause as he took to the field for D.C. United for the first time. The fans had been chanting “we want Rooney” and they were expecting something spectacular from England’s all-time leading goalscorer. But hopes of him making a similar impact were quickly dashed as he fired a free-kick against the wall, put a header wide and failed to get on the score sheet.

D.C. United won that game, but Rooney’s first start was a disaster. His team took a 1-0 lead against conference leaders Atlanta United FC, but Rooney hit a terrible pass into midfield, an opponent gobbled it up and they charged up the field and equalized. He slammed another promising free-kick into the wall and his rebound was pathetic. Rooney was then booked for throwing Chris McCann into the turf, and coach Ben Olsen hauled him off after 65 minutes as D.C. United went on to lose 3-1.

Rooney has been handed a baptism of fire Stateside. He has managed only one goal in five games, suffered a broken nose and generally struggled to make an impact for his new team. Whereas Ibrahimovic is banging in goals with customary regularity for a team challenging for honors, Rooney is scrabbling away for the team that sits bottom of the Eastern Conference. But there is still time for the former England captain to make a similar impact to Ibrahimovic, as he possesses all the requisite skills to shine.

In fairness, there are several mitigating circumstances to explain Rooney’s slow start. He was totally short of match fitness and it was always going to take a while for him to shake off the rust and adapt to the pace of the new league. He also joined a struggling team that was in horrible form and rock bottom of the table, so he was never going to enjoy immaculate service from the beginning of his MLS career. A glance at the Sporting Index MLS markets shows that D.C. United are considered one of the weakest teams in the league.

Rooney once played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Paul Scoles and Ryan Giggs in a Champions League winning side. The likes of Yamil Asad, Russell Canouse, and Zoltan Stieber are not going to provide such sumptuous crosses and razor sharp through balls.

But the quality of defending is considerably weaker in MLS and Rooney has the quality to bulldozer his way through opposition ranks and fire in a huge amount of goals. The team just needs to harness his talents better. Rooney has thus far played as a lone striker in front of a five-man midfield, but that is not his best position. The 32-year has lost a yard of pace in recent times, so he is not exactly cut out to leading the line.

He now operates best as a secondary striker or in the number 10 role, with a mobile center forward in front of him. His best performances for Everton last season came when he was pulling the strings behind the rapid Dominic Calvert-Lewin. That allowed him to use his nous and intelligence to drift into the box at opportune moments and wreak havoc.

He ended the season as the Toffees’ top scorer, and he was similarly effective in that role in his final years at Man Utd. They won the title in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season, with Rooney playing behind Robin van Persie. The logical option for D.C. United is to play Darren Mattocks up top and deploy Rooney in the hole behind him.

Mattocks has been contenting himself with a place on the bench while Rooney starts up top, but he has the pace and energy to provide the perfect foil for the Englishman. That could allow Rooney to influence the game to a greater degree, linking up the play, assisting his teammates, firing in long shots and arriving late in the box to polish off chances.

That presents Olsen with a bit of a headache, as Luciano Acosta currently fills that playmaker role in as the most advanced player in the five-man midfield, and he is arguably D.C. United’s most exciting and creative player. It would be a shame to bench him to accommodate Rooney, but it might be necessary. Alternatively, Olsen could try shunting Acosta out wide, or cash in on him and use the money to buy a dynamic striker to help bring the best out of Rooney.

Another option would be to ask Rooney to play as a false nine, putting the emphasis on Acosta, Asad, Stieber and Paul Arriola to regularly run on past him and provide plenty of attacking options. Olsen has never been the most flexible of coaches, but it is time for him to adapt if he wants to prevent Rooney from becoming an MLS flop. The likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, and David Villa have banged in plenty of goals Stateside despite lacking mobility, and Rooney has the finishing ability, movement, aerial prowess and intelligence to be as much of a success if he is used correctly.

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