- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2018

Wayne Rooney started Saturday like he did any other match day.

He had breakfast. He laid in bed, watching England and Belgium play the World Cup’s third-place game. He took a walk and ate lunch.

Then, he jogged onto Audi Field for the first time in the 58th minute against the Vancouver Whitecaps and played a part in D.C. United’s final two goals, securing three points for the inaugural match at Washington’s new Southwest D.C. home.

“(I prepared) exactly the same as I would with any other game, whether it’s my debut or whether it’s me 50th game, hundredth game,” Rooney said. “I know how to prepare for a football match and I know how me body has to prepare for that match.”

Fans at Audi Field needed to wait until the second half to see the English star in action, but they weren’t disappointed. His squaring pass to Paul Arriola led to D.C.’s final goal, a screamer from outside the box.

Coach Ben Olsen said the 30 minutes Rooney played were “right on the money” for the new signing’s current fitness levels. It was also enough time to see exactly what Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer brings to the intimate 20,000-seat stadium by the Anacostia River.

“We saw what Wayne is,” Olsen said. “A high-quality, elite soccer player. Looked like the game was pretty slow for him and I don’t think he lost the ball.”

A smattering of Rooney jerseys featured around Audi Field, some of them D.C.’s black home strip. There was a No. 10 England kit in the stands in front of the press box. Elsewhere were Manchester United and Everton versions with the English star’s name on the back.

“I want to thank everyone at the club for making me feel welcome,” Rooney said. “The fans have been fantastic ever since I arrived in the airport.”

When Rooney made his way to the southeast corner of Audi Field shortly into the second half to warm up, anticipation was rising for his first United appearance.

In response to those cheers, Rooney clapped, recognizing the support. In reply to Rooney’s acknowledgement, fans on the south wall chanted, “We love Rooney,” before the English star had even taken the pitch. And shortly after that, as Rooney stretched at the corner flag, the stadium voiced their top desire: “We want Rooney.”

Once he replaced Darren Mattocks, eyes followed him around the field. The play did, too, as he fit into Olsen’s touch-and-move soccer. He began a sequence that led to Arriola’s first goal. Rooney nodded a near-post header on target in the 79th minute, but Vancouver goalkeeper Brian Rowe dove to make the save.

Shortly after, he registered his first assist for United, laying off a pass for Arriola to fire home.

“This guy is unbelievable,” Arriola said. “His presence, on the field or off the field, it makes a big difference. And I think the most important thing for the team is, we’re not just looking for him, you know? He comes into the game and of course, if he’s the best option at the time, then we’ll play him, but he also is a humble man and he understands the game very well and sometimes if it’s not for him, it’s not for him.”

The No. 9 slotted in as a striker initially but showed versatility. Late in the game, he tracked back to help defend the lead, playing a role more akin to that of his final year at Everton, when he shifted into a central midfield role.

By the time Rooney reached the middle of the pitch with D.C. leading, 3-0, he waved his arms to the crowd, pumping up the crowd. The 20,504 in attendance obliged, finding their voice in a new, smaller but sleeker location, about three miles from United’s former RFK Stadium.

Rooney had found his step immediately, too, on a smaller scale than the Premier League.

“To be honest, I haven’t played with players of the caliber of Wayne,” Arriola said. “On the field, you can see his quality.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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