24 Thoughts: How Wayne Rooney's looming departure from MLS impacted D.C. United

Wayne Rooney and D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen chat during preseason. (Toni L. Sandys/Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

When word came down last month that Wayne Rooney would be leaving D.C. United at the end of the season less than halfway through the three-and-a-half-year contract he signed midway through the 2018 campaign, it seemed likely that one of two things would happen.

DCU’s players would either rally around their popular teammate, understanding that Rooney’s decision’s was family-driven, and make a second-half push toward the playoffs the way they did after the Manchester United legend arrived last year. Or the wheels would fall off.

For the most part, it’s looked like the latter. “It’s been up and down since the announcement, no question,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen told Yahoo Sports.

Heading into their most recent MLS game, the Black and Red had gone 1-3 since the Aug. 6 news broke and were in danger of falling below the postseason threshold. Olsen was calling the match in Montreal on Aug. 31 a must-win. And Rooney would miss the trip north after being hit with an additional match suspension after being sent off in a Rivalry Week loss to the New York Red Bulls.

With their captain watching from back home, United turned in a 3-0 triumph at Stade Saputo that could change the course of their season.

24 Thoughts

1. “This was the game where it can go the way that it did, and we get a result, or we can keep dropping, which would’ve put us in a horrible position,” midfielder Paul Arriola told Yahoo Sports after the match. “We talked internally. I won’t get into too much detail, but we challenged each other, we challenged the coaching staff, and the coaching staff challenged us. That was extremely important. We needed it. I think the good thing is that none of us were content with where we were going and how we played the last few months.”

2. Those conversations sometimes can be good, and sometimes they can be bad,” Olsen said. “It was back to basics; we had some real honest conversations about who we are and what makes us good.”

3. The truth is United had been struggling long before Rooney’s impending departure came to light. The defense has been porous. They were not been the set-piece threat they had been in the spring. Rooney’s on-field chemistry with Argentine attacker Luciano Acosta had also disappeared, with Acosta apparently unsettled by interest from Paris Saint-Germain and other European clubs. After winning seven times over its first 11 games, D.C.’s victory against the Impact was just its fourth in its last 18.

Wayne Rooney (right) is leaving D.C. United for English Championship club Derby County, where he'll be a player/assistant coach under Phillip Cocu. (Reuters/Carl Recine)

4. “More than just the Wayne situation, when you struggle to get results you have to look yourself in the mirror and figure out what the real problem is,” Arriola said. “Obviously there’s a lot of off-the-field stuff that has gone on in people’s personal lives. Wayne leaving, Lucho not knowing if he staying or not — these are all little things that might play a factor.”

5. Speaking on the Men in Blazers podcast this week, Rooney admitted that the situation isn’t ideal. “You’ve come back here to your teammates who know you’re leaving, so it is a bit of a challenge,” he said. Olsen acknowledged the distraction. “It’s not been an easy process for Wayne, the family leaving, one foot here and one foot out,” he said. “He’s still here, he’s engaged. He built enough of a foundation with the guys that he wasn’t going to just leave [in the middle of the season]. He wants to see this out. And he’ll play a big part in some way if we’re going to make a run at this thing.”

6. It won’t be easy. While DCU currently sits fifth in the Eastern Conference, five points ahead of eighth-place Montreal, New York and New England are breathing down their necks and each have a game in hand. United’s remaining schedule includes a cross-continental visit to streaking Portland this weekend and a trip up to Red Bull Arena later this month, with the Seattle Sounders also on the docket before the regular season is over.

7. “We still have a lot to do to get into the playoffs,” Olsen said, insisting that he doesn’t look at the table or at other teams’ results. “But [beating the Impact] was a huge first step.”

8. The U.S. men’s national team sure missed the combative Arriola in last week’s embarrassing 3-0 loss to arch-enemy Mexico. Arriola began this calendar year as a reserve for the USMNT — with European-based members unavailable, he didn’t even start for the junior varsity version in January’s 3-0 win over Panama — but he had become a staple in coach Gregg Berhalter’s lineup by July’s Gold Cup final loss to El Tri.

Paul Arriola scored in a D.C. United's crucial Aug. 31 win at the Montreal Impact. (Eric Bolte/USA Today)

9. Off the field, it’s been a terrible year for Arriola. His father died last October. Then last month, his grandfather passed away, forcing him to miss the Mexico rematch plus Tuesday’s 1-1 stalemate with Uruguay.

10. “As I’ve learned the last couple years, life can change in a day,” Arriola said. “Especially after my father passed, it’s really been me trying to find myself, which to be honest I still am. I go through a lot of tough days. But I try and put my emotions into the game and I feel that my soccer IQ has really been enhanced because of the time that I’ve been putting in.”

11. Arriola and I spoke before the international window opened. But it was still interesting to get his thoughts on the national team’s evolution under Berhalter, who has been in the crosshairs of fed-up U.S. fans over the last week.

12. “Gregg has helped me so much in my game,” Arriola said. “When you talk about soccer IQ, I really felt the benefits of the January camp, of the double training days, the videos, learning the system — all these things. I love it.

“And so now we formed this bond where you begin to trust everyone and you begin to understand what everyone has to do, and it makes the game so easy. I was obviously bummed not to be able to go to these games, especially playing against Mexico. But I had to prioritize my family. So I think we’re going in the right direction. I’ve always said that when you play in a system, if everyone’s bought in, it doesn’t matter what kind of system you are playing, you’re going to be successful.”

13. As one of the few holdovers from the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying disaster, Arriola — who is still just 24 — also understands the supporters’ impatience.

14. “It’s the national team, we all understand how critical it is, and especially not qualifying, the pressure that comes with it and the fans needing more and wanting more and asking ‘When are we going to be good, when will we get good results?’” he said. “I still think looking back that we were so close [in the Gold Cup] but we weren’t there yet. We’re not there yet.”

New Colorado Rapids coach Robin Fraser is off to a 3-0 start. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today)

15. Caught up with new Colorado Rapids boss Robin Fraser this week. Fraser is off to a perfect 3-0 start in his second stint as an MLS manager (he helmed now-defunct Chivas USA from 2011-12) following Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the reeling Galaxy.

16. “It’s really gone well,” Fraser told me before the midweek tilt. “The team has been really receptive, looking for information and quick to apply it to the best of their ability. It’s a talented group. We’re just trying to get our ideas all in line and trying to get as cohesive as possible as quickly as possible.”

17. Fraser has earned his second chance. He forged a reputation as one of the top assistants in MLS with the title-winning Red Bulls (2013 Supporters’ Shield) and then Toronto FC (2017 MLS Cup).

18. “I interviewed several times over the years with different clubs,” said Fraser, who played 74 MLS games for the Rapids between 2001-03. “I don’t know if I was ever close to getting one.”

19. It’s no secret that Colorado is one of the more frugal teams in MLS. Coming from deep-pocketed TFC will be an adjustment for Fraser, who indicated that his main goal is to turn the Rapids into a talent incubator like the Red Bulls, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. He’ll have lots of leeway when it comes to building out his roster. And it’s not like the Rapids won’t look to the transfer market at all, not with the retiring Tim Howard’s $2.48 million salary (13th highest in the league) coming off the books in 2020.

20. “It’s definitely not barebones,” Fraser said. “We’ll have some money available at the end of the year and we’re already knee-deep in looking at the types of players that we want to bring in. It’s just a matter of putting the resources to good use.” In what positions is he looking for help? “At this point that’s still being determined, because I’ve had the team for two weeks,” Fraser laughed. “It’s important to know what I have before I start choosing what I need to get.”

21. Fraser becomes the first black head coach in MLS since Patrick Vieira left New York City FC for French side Nice midway through last season. “It’s not a something that I carry in the forefront of my mind every single day,” he said when asked if that distinction carried any extra responsibility.

“There’s a lot to do as a head coach. But in the moments where I have downtime, I might think that this is a great opportunity. I think that — and obviously this question is something that I get asked all the time — it is interesting that there aren’t more coaches of color. You ask about responsibility. I think it’s probably important that I do well, because it will open doors for others. But [current Red Bulls sporting director] Denis Hamlett did great in Chicago and he didn’t get a coaching job after that.”

23. Just a couple weeks after St. Louis was awarded MLS’s 28th franchiseSacramento appears locked in as No. 29, setting up an all-out frenzy for the coveted 30th spot. (I believe Charlotte is now the clear favorite.) MLS has not committed beyond that number for now. But with credible interest remaining in Detroit, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, Tampa/St. Petersburg, and Raleigh-Durham (although MLS commissioner Don Garber made it clear that North Carolina is vying for one spot), it will.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and LA Galaxy are on pace to miss the MLS playoffs again. (Ira L. Black/Getty)

24. The Galaxy’s loss in Colorado was their fifth in eight games, and it kept them just outside the playoff picture in the West. Wouldn’t it be something if Zlatan Ibrahimovic — who blasted the league’s preference for postseason play earlier this summer — fails to get his team into the tournament for a second straight season?

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