GAME ON, D.C. United.
Until the Capitals’ cathartic Stanley Cup victory, United fans always had the last word on their city’s lengthy professional sports title drought.
Anyone who claimed that Washington’s previous championship came in Super Bowl XXVI was politely informed that D.C. United captured Major League Soccer crowns in 1996, ‘97, ‘99 and 2004. (Never mind that the Kastles ruled World Team Tennis from 2009-15, with six titles in seven years.)
But United’s dominant days are a distant memory. D.C. hasn’t reached the MLS Cup since 2004, and endured a disastrous 3-24-7 season just five years ago. In fact, most casual observers’ top memory of 2004 wasn’t the championship but the ill-fated experiment with 14-year-old Freddy Adu (which was really much Adu about nothing.)
This season hasn’t been much better: a 2-7-5 record, a league-low 11 points and just 23 goals scored (third-fewest in MLS).
But this Saturday, for the first time in 14 years, all U.S. soccer eyes will be trained on Washington. United will christen its shiny new Audi Field and welcome Wayne Rooney to its lineup, two moves that should attract desperately needed attention.
Daniel Snyder’s NFL team abandoned decrepit RFK Stadium two decades ago, a time span so long he’s already looking to replace FedEx Field. RFK has remained United’s home, and it took until 2015 before the club secured the land and funding for Audi Field, a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Buzzard Point near the Anacostia River.
That move alone would have given United a bump. But when it coincides with Rooney’s debut, it makes Saturday’s home game against Vancouver the biggest day in club history.
Rooney’s arrival is sure to boost ticket and jersey sales, and it should get United more nationally televised cable matches in future seasons.
But will it have any lasting impact on the pitch? That’s the $13 million question. (That’s what United is reportedly paying him for the next 3 1/2 seasons).
At age 32, Rooney’s best goal-scoring days are clearly behind him. Only Allen Sherer (260) has scored more Premier League goals than Rooney’s 208. But he’s netted a modest 28 in a combined 79 matches over the past three seasons. Compare that to the 27 he netted in 34 matches in 2011-12 alone.
It may be a coincidence that England nearly reached the World Cup final for the first time since 1966 immediately after Rooney retired from international competition. Or maybe it’s not.
Like David Beckham in L.A. a few years ago, Rooney seems to be a declining star whose biggest impact for his MLS club will be at the box office and in the team store.
Perhaps he has enough left in his tank to help ignite a stagnant offense and revive a team that gets to play 15 of its final 20 matches on its new field. (MLS intentionally front-loaded United’s schedule with road games to give construction crews more time to finish Audi Field.)
Regardless, United gets a rare moment in the sun on Saturday. Even that’s tainted a little, though, because Audi Field is in the shadow of Nationals Park, where Major League Baseball will be gearing up for Monday’s Home Run Derby and Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
Still, United should enjoy the spotlight. Now it’s up to Rooney and the team to ensure it doesn’t take another 14 years to come around again.