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Why Wayne Rooney’s exit from D.C. United is a wake-up call for the club

Why Wayne Rooney’s exit from D.C. United is a wake-up call for the club
  • PublishedOctober 10, 2023

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D.C. United continue to be an organization that is running in circles. There is no plan that the organization isn’t willing to abandon if a season goes sideways. The departure of manager Wayne Rooney is merely the latest iteration of that habit.

Rooney long had a savior-like aura about him as it relates to the Black and Red. He injected a shot of adrenaline into the club when he arrived as a player in 2018, leading DCU to an improbable run to the MLS Cup playoffs. Fifteen months later, he left to take on a player/coach role at Derby County. The impression then was that he left his job in Washington, D.C., unfinished, and could have done more to continue the momentum that his arrival had brought. Yet the view of Rooney as a savior persisted, and appears to have clouded the club’s collective judgement.

In July 2022, Rooney returned, this time as manager. In that role, he lasted roughly the same amount of time, though the short tenure in itself wasn’t a huge surprise. It always seemed like Rooney would use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and he signed a contract that lasted only until this December. That viewpoint was reinforced when his family didn’t follow him back to the nation’s capital.

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But even with that expectation, Rooney departs having fallen short of most of his goals. Sure, DCU improved its points total by 13 this season, this after finishing dead last in the league in 2022. That, however, is managerial low-hanging fruit. With the final day of the regular season still to be played by D.C. United’s conference rivals, it is likely to finish in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference, and moving from dreadful to merely mediocre is nothing to celebrate in the parity-driven world of MLS.

Rooney recognized there was more to do, and earlier this year, it seemed as though he wanted to stay. It certainly wasn’t the easiest of seasons, with the racism allegations and ultimate departure of forward Taxi Fountas among his myriad managerial challenges. But ultimately, the team’s performance over the past two months, when the Black and Red went 2-4-4 after the Leagues Cup, sealed his fate with the team’s owners. Perhaps the veneer of savior finally wore off; at the very least, it was recognized as being unsustainable.

The main takeaway then is that for the fourth straight season, DCU will finish out of the playoffs, and lest anyone think that this was some near miss, the only reason the Black and Red were eliminated after playing its full 34-game schedule is because MLS’ ever-generous playoff system added two teams per conference this season, upping the total to nine out of 15 in the east. Otherwise, DCU would have been eliminated weeks ago.

Perhaps most revealing was Rooney’s comment: “I’ve done everything I can to get this club into the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not a single thing that’s happened. It’s about timing.” He did also say he was given enough money and support by ownership.

As for structure, that is another story. DCU will hire a new GM in the coming weeks, with longtime executive Dave Kasper getting moved upstairs into an advisory role. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Back in April 2021, the club hired Lucy Rushton to be the GM, with Kasper getting moved upstairs with the title of sporting director. Over the course of 18 tumultuous months, the club fired a manager, Hernan Losada (whom Rushton didn’t hire), and brought in Rooney to take over with a remit to remake the club. Three months after Rooney’s arrival, Rushton was let go. Now, Rooney’s gone too. That inability to commit to a coherent vision is at the heart of DCU’s problems.

The GM role is one the organization has been slow to fill, and the lack of a replacement has been pointed to as a reason why DCU underperformed, but that is arguably a smokescreen. There were people still making GM-level decisions — namely Kasper and Rooney, along with technical director Stewart Mairs.

This time around, the GM won’t report to Kasper, but to co-owner Jason Levien. While that is an improvement, there’s absolutely no guarantee that if things don’t improve in a season or two, the new GM (whomever it may be) will be jettisoned again.

It points to a broader question of: What is the plan moving forward? Apparently, not even the owners know.

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Rooney: It’s the right time to leave

Wayne Rooney talks about returning to the United Kingdom following his departure as manager of D.C. United.

“We’ve been hard at work talking with potential general managers, and when we have someone in place, part of that discussion is around: What’s our coaching strategy and what’s our player recruitment strategy?” Levien told The Washington Post. “How are we going to build a culture that is going to take us to where we want to go? We’re getting smarter just by having those discussions, by talking to different people who’ve been successful doing this.”

One would think that these topics would have been broached and defined long ago, especially for a club with as rich a history as DCU, with four MLS Cups to its name. That they are only being examined in detail now is damning, but is reflected in what has taken place over the past five years.

This is an organization that, when the 2024 season starts, will have had four different managers over that span. It went from a club legend in Ben Olsen — who, by the way, has revived the Houston Dynamo all the way to a playoff spot — to the hyper-pressing ways of Hernan Losada (who still has Montreal alive in the East), to Rooney, to whoever is next. It’s whiplash-inducing. If there is such a thing as “confidence equity” as it relates to decisions by ownership, that has long since been exhausted.

Whoever the GM ends up being, they’ll need to give the next coach time and patience, and a commitment to a plan. If that happens, DCU can go from looking for saviors to finding a sustainable path to returning to the league’s elite.

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