When Wayne Rooney started his sprint, Milton Ventura was thinking exactly what everyone else was thinking.
“I was like, I don’t know man,” Ventura said. “He’s a little old.”
What happened in the next 20 seconds, though, was soccer magic from Rooney, D.C. United’s big summer signing: a desperate bit of backtracking, a rugged one-on-one tackle, a quick survey of the options and then a pinpoint assist from a distant ZIP code.
By the time the ball had settled into Orlando City’s net, those 20 seconds had altered quite a few things, including, but not limited to: perceptions about the state of Rooney’s skills at age 32; skepticism about Major League Soccer’s continuing addiction to name-brand European imports; and, perhaps most important, the course of D.C. United’s season.
Within a day, video of Rooney’s play had gone viral. Within a week, D.C. United had won two more games. By the time the team hosted New England on Sunday night at its shiny new home, Audi Field, Ventura was counting himself among the converted.
“It’s not like some other huge transfers who come here to lay low, then retire,” said Ventura, a 20-year-old D.C. United fan from Hyattsville, Md. “I think he’s serious about making a huge impact.”
In the five weeks since Rooney made his M.L.S. debut, he has broken his nose, refused to wear protective headgear and endeared himself to teammates. He has adjusted to a new life of flying commercial and of rooming with a teammate on road trips, working-class realities of M.L.S. that Rooney seldom, if ever, endured when he was one of the Premier League’s brightest stars.
Just as critical, he has played well. Rooney has scored three goals and assisted on three others and given more interviews than he can count, and he has proved — for now, at least — that a pasty Englishman can survive, and even thrive, in the sometimes oppressive summer heat of the United States’ capital. But none of what he has done has had anything close to the impact of those 20 seconds against Orlando City.
The moment came in the waning moments of stoppage time in a tie game on Aug. 12. D.C. United had sent everyone, including its goalkeeper, forward to try to score off a late corner kick, a risky decision that seemed even more ill-advised when the ball was cleared toward midfield and Rooney found himself in a footrace with Orlando City’s Will Johnson — and as the last man between Johnson and D.C. United’s open net.
Rooney charged toward midfield and, when Johnson got to the ball first, upended him with a game-saving tackle. But he wasn’t done. Rooney then popped back up and, after settling himself with three quick touches, delivered a cross-field pass that Luciano Acosta headed in at the back post for a 3-2 victory.
“It was,” D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum said, “just an unbelievable play.”
For D.C. United this season, there is life before Rooney and life since he arrived. Before Rooney, the club was floundering on the road as it awaited the completion of Audi Field, which opened on July 9. Frustration mounted along with the losses. But since D.C. United signed Rooney to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal after several weeks of rumors, the team has gone 5-2-1, rising out of last place and directly into the playoff conversation heading into a match against the Red Bulls on Sunday.
“Obviously,” Rooney said, “the confidence is high right now.”
In the process, he has lifted the burden on fellow playmakers like Acosta, a 24-year-old midfielder from Argentina who has thrived in their new partnership and who affectionately referred to Rooney as Señor Wayne. But he has also silenced critics who questioned whether his signing was little more than a publicity stunt for a listless club in need of a boldface name to sell tickets to its new stadium. For the moment, everyone seems to be cheering the deal.
Before Sunday’s 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution, Brian Portillo, 30, and his girlfriend, Wendy Miguel, 28, were among those who had swarmed the club’s merchandise store, newly flush with Rooney gear. Portillo and Miguel had come in search of matching jerseys featuring Rooney’s name and number; Portillo said that they had tried to order them online a week earlier only to find they were sold out.
“I think he’s energized the city,” said Portillo, who recalled hearing from friends who were skeptical of the signing. “They were like, ‘He’s just here for the paycheck.’ I don’t think so.”
Rooney, who signed for three and a half years on a deal approaching $15 million, according to two people familiar with the negotiations, may be far removed from the grandeur of the Premier League, where he spent 16 years with Everton and Manchester United and then Everton again, but he still has reach. The clip of his late-game heroics against Orlando City eventually made its way onto his Instagram feed, where it was viewed more than 2.5 million times in the week after it went up.
Rooney has appeared determined in his early days with the club to make clear that he wants his final years on the field to be productive ones, to show that he is not winding down his career in the United States (merely) for a personal valedictory.
He has conveyed as much to his new teammates. It is the custom at D.C. United for each new player to address the club upon his arrival. So when Rooney strode into the locker room for the first time before a training session several weeks ago, he emphasized his desire to win. His speech was a bit longer and more detailed than most, teammates said.
Everyone on the team knew of Rooney, of course, but nobody really knew him — not on a personal level. It was natural, then, for some players to wonder about his motivations. Rooney is not the first aging, high-profile European to latch on with M.L.S. just as his skills were no longer in demand elsewhere. Some of those experiments — Thierry Henry, David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger — have exceeded expectations. Others most definitely have not.
“Whenever a player of his caliber comes to a team, I think everyone hopes that he’s grounded, humble and here to work hard,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “But you just don’t know. Because there have been other occasions, I’m sure, where it’s been completely different, where a guy comes into a locker room and stays above everyone else.”
Rooney, though, has blended into the framework of D.C. United, Arriola said. He has invited teammates to play golf. He has flown coach without complaint. He has turned down the team’s offer to have his own hotel room on the road.
Still, Rooney’s presence remains surreal to some of his teammates, including midfielder Chris Durkin, who, at 18, is the club’s youngest player. Growing up in Virginia, Durkin said he had posters of Rooney on his bedroom wall, a secret that, in hindsight, he probably should not have shared with Coach Ben Olsen, who promptly spilled it.
“Ben sold me out,” said Durkin, who added that he wanted to learn as much as possible from Rooney. “I’m trying to be a sponge and listen to every single thing he says.”