Photo: Rich Kessler
Photo: Rich Kessler

D.C. Gets United

When Wayne Rooney trotted onto Audi Field for the first time in D.C. United’s home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 14, a sold-out crowd of 20,504 erupted in raucous cheers.

Making his American Major League Soccer debut, the 32-year-old British soccer legend looked sharp, drilling crisp, efficient passes and notching an assist to Paul Arriola, who scored two goals in the home team’s 3-1 victory.

Afterward, a smiling Rooney sat before a throng of reporters in the club’s gleaming new interview room and declared himself proud of his new club and the new stadium. But he also laid down a challenge to his D.C. United teammates for the weeks and months ahead.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Rooney, who knows a thing or two about atmosphere after representing England in three World Cups and claiming five Premier League championships with the fabled Manchester United club. “It’s a great stadium that’s built for atmosphere, but we have to create the atmosphere on the pitch. We can’t expect the fans to come in and make noise if we’re not exciting them. It’s our job to excite them.

“For the fans and the players, it was a big game,” Rooney added. “Now, we’ll enjoy tonight’s victory and get ready for the next game.”

The Audi Field home opener at Buzzard Point, just a stone’s throw from Nationals Park, represented a new chapter in D.C. United’s storied history, which includes 13 titles, four MLS cups and a long wait for a home of their own.

The soccer club contended with a grueling, four-month road schedule as it awaited the opening of the stadium in July. According to D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen, it was worth the wait. Olsen took a quiet walk around the stadium before the home opener to soak up the significance of the moment.

“This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history, and we’ve had some good ones,” Olsen said after the game. “After four months on the road, to play the way we played, score goals and be entertaining was just a great night for the organization.”

The new stadium, which cost nearly half a billion dollars, delighted enthusiastic D.C. United fans who have endured years of subpar soccer conditions at RFK Stadium, a crumbling relic built for American football – not soccer. Audi Field’s sleek and modern design, stellar sightlines, and upscale concessions put it among the very best venues for soccer in the United States and perhaps the world.

Arriola, a small but speedy 23-year-old forward for D.C. United, had a hint of awe in his eyes as he described what it was like to play in the new stadium.

“It was awesome,” he told On Tap. “To look up and see the fans right on top of you – you can look up and stare them right in the eyes. The fans obviously deserve this place, to come to a beautiful field and stadium, and it gives us confidence to go out there and perform.”

Aside from Audi Field’s opening, D.C. United’s biggest move this season was the acquisition of Rooney. The father of four and global soccer legend signed a reported $13 million contract for two-and-a-half years, with D.C. United holding an option for an additional year.

Rooney is the only player to score 200 goals and provide 100 assists in the British Premier League, and is now the highest paid player in MLS history. After the home opener, Olsen reinforced what a great decision the big contract was for his team.

“We saw what Wayne is: a high-quality, elite soccer player,” Olsen said. “He didn’t lose possession, made some key passes and got on the end of a few balls in the box. This is what he’s going to do for us. With his character, he’s here to help the team get better on and off the field.”

Olsen added that to put it simply, he just makes the right plays.

“There’s a lot of value in that, making the right play in the moment. We’re still a young team, so he can help with the soccer aspect and the mentality he brings with his experience. That’s the exciting part about this. We’re lucky to have him.”

Arriola said Rooney immediately makes D.C. United a better team with his leadership on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a very humble guy on and off the field,” Arriola said. “But on the field, you can see his quality. The way he plays really suits a lot of our players. We’re still trying to get the chemistry together and it will take time, but he just wants to get in here and work and win. That’s the type of player we need right now.”

For his part, Rooney said he’s ready to write the next chapter in his storied career.

“I have said this since I committed to the club: I want to win, and I am vocal on and off the pitch,” Rooney said. “I’m vocal with the coach, vocal with my teammates and we speak [about] which we think is the best way to win a football match. I think the most important thing is communication, not just for myself but for the players, and the players know that.”

Rooney acknowledged that some of his younger, less experienced teammates may be a bit intimidated by his success on the global soccer stage, but he stressed that he is now one of them.

“I am a D.C. United player,” he said. “I am exactly the same as these players and I want to win. What I can bring is my desire to win, and that’s every day on the training pitch and every game.”

Learn more about D.C. United’s 2018 season at www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com