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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Graham Ruthven

Wayne Rooney’s MLS exit was predictable. What comes next is not

Rooney won 12 of 48 MLS games as DC United manager.
Rooney won 12 of 48 MLS games as DC United manager. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

DC United wanted Wayne Rooney to pull off the managerial equivalent of his finest moment in Major League Soccer as a player. Every fan of DC United remembers the former England captain’s tackle and assist in the dying moments of a match against Orlando City in August 2018, when Rooney essentially did everything himself to turn around a game on his own. DC United hired him to do the same as a manager.

Unsurprisingly, the ploy didn’t work. Rooney announced his departure as DC United boss on Saturday after his team were all but eliminated from playoff contention. Rooney is now expected to take over at Birmingham City, who sacked John Eustace on Monday to clear space in the St Andrew’s dugout. The Championship club co-owned by Tom Brady wanted a big-name manager and Rooney certainly ticks that box.

A big-name manager he might be, but nobody really knows if Rooney is actually any good as a manager. Rooney’s first two clubs in management were so dysfunctional during his time in charge that it’s unclear how to judge him fairly. Relegation at Derby County came as a consequence of administration and a 21-point deduction while DC United have no real front office to speak of and are notoriously thrifty in the player market.

And yet at both clubs, Rooney demonstrated something that suggested he could convert his status as one of the best players of his generation into a successful managerial career. Derby should have had no chance of avoiding relegation from the Championship. Under Rooney, they put up a fight. Without the points deduction for grave financial problems, Derby would have finished well clear of danger.

As recently as April, Rooney appeared to have DC United heading in the right direction. A three-game winning streak had fans enthused as a pragmatic approach gave structure to an unbalanced squad. The number of youngsters (Matai Akinmboni, Kristian Fletcher, Jacob Greene, Theodore Ku-Dipietro) fast-tracked by Rooney into the first team gave the impression he was building something for the future.

Away from soccer, though, Rooney’s presence at Audi Field felt temporary. His family stayed in England – perhaps due to his wife Coleen’s dislike for Washington DC, which was revealed during last year’s ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial – leading to the bizarre suggestion Rooney considered living with some of his DC United players.

That Rooney was a player’s coach was a strength and a weakness. While it allowed him to build a strong connection with his team, it prevented self-reflection within the DC United camp when things went wrong. Rooney was quick to blame referees for bad results. “If this league wants to grow and improve they have to do it with the officials as well,” he once said.

The power of Rooney’s name was also a pro and a con in the transfer market. It certainly helped DC United attract new signings. Christian Benteke may not have joined the club had it not been for a call from Rooney. “It’s always good to be managed by a striker,” said the Belgian, who finished 2023 as the team’s top scorer.

In other cases, though, Rooney’s influence over transfer strategy should have been curbed. Ravel Morrison was handed a contract worth three times what he reportedly earned at Derby County because Rooney said he deserved it. Morrison, left out of DC United’s squad for the 2023 season, is still the club’s fifth highest-paid player.

Rooney isn’t the only MLS manager to have recently departed his post. Adrian Heath was fired by Minnesota United just days before Rooney’s exit, with the Loons hopeful a new manager bounce will carry them into the playoffs. In all, nine managers were either fired or resigned from their positions in MLS this season – and that number will continue to grow as the offseason comes into focus.

DC United, however, have more work to do before the start of the 2024 campaign than most. This is a club without an identity. DC United will always have historical significance as one of the MLS’s founding members, but the league has left them behind. Not even Rooney was able to pull the Black-and-Red from irrelevancy, a state they’ve been stuck in for years.

Whoever succeeds Rooney at Audi Field will probably face many of the same issues experienced by the former England striker over the last two seasons. DC United’s next manager will inherit a poorly constructed squad with no real prospect of a rebuild any time soon. Rooney’s team should have made the playoffs, but the postseason bar in MLS is so low that clinching one of the final spots this year wouldn’t have warranted more than a shrug.

Ultimately, Rooney may benefit from learning his managerial craft in MLS, away from Europe’s glare. Unlike some of his English ‘golden generation’ peers – see Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard – the 37-year-old has been allowed to develop at his own pace. Failure at DC United clearly hasn’t put off suitors. Birmingham City may be where Rooney shows what he learned in MLS.

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