When Wayne Rooney joined D.C. United in July, his arrival was greeted by as much skepticism as hype.
Would the English star really make his new team better? Or was the 32-year-old just coming to enjoy life in America, sell tickets at United's new stadium, score a few goals, and cash $13 million in paychecks over 2-1/2 seasons?
The answers stunned even his most optimistic fans. You might have already seen his extraordinary effort in D.C.'s game-winning goal against Orlando City a few weeks ago. The play went viral instantly, from social media to all the TV highlight shows, in a way the Union can only dream of.
(And they do, especially in the marketing department.)
What silenced the doubters wasn't Rooney's inch-perfect 50-yard pass that teammate Luciano Acosta headed into the net with just seconds left to play. It was a half-the-field sprint that Rooney embarked on a moment before.
The sequence started when D.C. goalkeeper David Ousted joined the attack for a late corner kick. Orlando cleared it, and Will Johnson tracked the ball down before Ousted could get back to his net. Because of Rooney's hustle, Johnson wasn't even able to line up a shot before Rooney delivered a crunching tackle and stripped the ball away.
Major League Soccer's history books are filled with tales of stars who came here and didn't give a full effort, or were found to not have a full effort to give. Rooney has already proved he's for real.
Despite Philadelphia's long history of anti-English sentiment, the city is a bastion of English Premier League fandom. All those Center City dwellers who flaunted England flags during the World Cup would find their way to Chester to cheer Rooney on.
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This all begs a question: What if Rooney had joined the Union? It sounds impossible, not the least because the Union have never spent $13 million on one player — and have said time and again that they won't.
The history books also show there are probably better ways to spend $13 million. You can find great, young South American players for less than that, and sell their rights for a profit a few years later. That is one of new sporting director Ernst Tanner's areas of expertise, and it's the right way to go.
But if Rooney keeps thriving, it will be hard to ignore his success, especially if D.C. keeps climbing up the standings. And if the Union's owners decide they want a star, well, the only people who've ever stopped them have been themselves.
Wednesday, 8 p.m. at Audi Field, Washington
Union's record: 11-11-3, 36 points (5th in the East); 4-7-1 on the road
D.C.'s record: 7-10-6, 27 points (8th in the East); 6-1-1 at home
Series history: Union 10 wins, D.C. 8 wins, 4 ties
At D.C.: Union 2 wins, D.C. 5 wins, 4 ties
(This is their first meeting at Audi Field; all the previous games in Washington were at RFK Stadium)
F Wayne Rooney: He has three goals and three assists in nine games so far, and most dangerously for opponents, seems to genuinely be having fun after so many years in England's soccer fishbowl.
M Luciano Acosta: The latest in a long line of South American playmakers who've called D.C. home, he has five goals and 10 assists this season.