Perhaps the magic of last summer can’t be replicated for D.C. United. It’s not every year a sports team pairs the acquisition of a world-famous player with the opening of a long-awaited new facility.
At the dawn of a new Major League Soccer season, the question for Wayne Rooney and D.C. United is whether they will build on the success they enjoyed in the second half of last season — and how.
Their new season begins Sunday at 6 p.m., as the Black and Red face defending league champion Atlanta United at Audi Field in a game to be televised by ESPN.
United finished the regular season 12-4-4 after signing Rooney last July, charging from the bottom of the standings up to a playoff spot in remarkable fashion. Rooney added offense and veteran leadership, the defense improved and the fans rallied. But Columbus knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round.
Something closer to a league championship would be the ideal result for this year’s squad. The Action Network a sports betting resource, posted 16-to-1 odds for United to win the MLS Cup, which are only the 10th-best odds in a league of 24 clubs.
Rooney, also United’s captain, was disappointed with the club’s final preseason tune-up, a 3-0 loss to the Montreal Impact.
“The Montreal game was very disappointing from a player’s point of view,” Rooney said. “We didn’t play well at all, but also I think a bit of the fight in the team in that game wasn’t there, which we need. We need to fight in every game like we did toward the end of last season to get to where we want to be.”
United had a busy offseason, which included Rooney being arrested for public intoxication at an airport and fined $25.
Coach Ben Olsen received an extension through 2021, which was welcome news to players like Paul Arriola.
“There’s some coaches that they were players and they turn into coaches and they kind of forget that they were in players’ shoes,” Arriola said. “And Ben’s definitely not one of those guys. He’s a guy that understands everyone, he’s easy to talk to.”
And Luciano Acosta, United’s best offensive player not named Rooney, was courted by Paris Saint-Germain, the best team in France. They nearly completed a deal, but it fell through.
Acosta had 17 assists, the second most in MLS, and 10 goals last season.
Although Rooney led D.C. in goals (12) in 2018 despite playing just a partial season, the 33-year-old said he wants to keep things simple on the attack and let Acosta do his thing.
“I know I’m not a player who’s going to pick the ball up and run past three, four players at this time in my career,” Rooney said. “That’s not really what my game is about. I’ll let Luciano do that, and when I’ve got my back to goal, give him the ball and get in the box and hope he’ll find me.”
Among the club’s new players are Leonardo Jara, who’s likely to start at right back while on a yearlong loan from Argentina’s Boca Juniors, and Donovan Pines, a center back from their youth academy who starred at the University of Maryland.
Arriola thinks United will benefit from a good mix of technical players who “play for moments” and fighters who want to grind out wins by doing whatever is required of them. The winger hopes his teammates keep in mind it’s a long season.
“When it’s not going well and we’re not playing the way that we want to or people are used to seeing us, especially at home, (we ask ourselves) how can we get wins?” Arriola said. “Whether it comes from grinding out a result or constantly defending or having one shot on goal and having that ball go in.”
“Just believing in every player and backing them up 100 percent,” Pines added. “Just being a cohesive unit, you know? I think toward the end of the season, for D.C., everyone bought into the program, bought into the process and dug deep and did what they had to do to succeed.”