The first and last time D.C. United came to Minnesota, it arrived at TCF Bank Stadium on a July night two summers ago and left a 4-0 loser to the expansion Loons on its way to MLS’ worst record that season.
Times do change.
On Sunday, D.C. United returns best in the East and undefeated in four road games (3-0-1), transformed by former Premier League star Wayne Rooney and a midfield remade with gifted players themselves behind him.
The all-time leading scorer in both Manchester United’s and England’s national team history, Rooney impressed the first time he faced Minnesota United last September, shortly after he left boyhood club Everton and the EPL for America and MLS.
Until then, Loons defender Brent Kallman had only seen Rooney play for Man U and in World Cups on television. All that changed during 90 minutes at DC United’s newly opened stadium.
“He was really good, the best player I’ve ever played against,” Kallman said. “His movement, his timing is on a different level.”
On Wednesday, Kallman and center-back teammate Ike Opara teamed to render L.A. Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic largely invisible. Sunday afternoon, their attention turns to Rooney and attacking midfielders Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodriguez.
Ibrahimovic is the brash, physically imposing pure goal-scorer with a flare for the spectacular who likes to lurk around the goal, particularly the far post.
Rooney is a playmaker who roams the field and uses his smarts to create for both himself and his teammates. He and Acosta particularly have forged a partnership that Loons coach Adrian Heath deems one of the league’s best.
With Rooney now 33 and Ibrahimovic 37, neither is showing much of his age.
A former Everton star himself, Heath remembers Rooney from way back when, long before he even made his pro debut at age 16 in August 2002.
“We knew about him when he was 12 years of age,” Heath said. “Everybody at the club knew about him. He has had a great career. What is he, the top goal scorer for Manchester United, top goal scorer for England? It speaks for itself.”
Loons rookie defender Chase Gasper trained alongside Rooney and D.C. United for a week last summer, before his senior season at nearby Maryland. He watched Ibrahimovic play from afar, everywhere from Barcelona and Paris to Milan and Manchester. He did the same with Rooney for all those years with Man U and England.
“I watched a lot of guys, but I remember watching those two specifically,” Gasper said. “You dream about it when you’re younger. It was always so much fun watching both those guys play wherever they were.”
Dreams turned reality when he played alongside Rooney for that one week.
“If you didn’t know who he was, you’d never guess he was an international superstar at Manchester United,” Gasper said. “He’s such a humble, down-to-earth guy with everybody from the veterans to the youngest guys on the team. He works hard. Every practice, he gives it everything.”
Gasper has seen Rooney transform his hometown MLS team in the standings and change his own loved ones inside the Beltway some as well.
“People like my friends and family who aren’t even really into soccer, even they know his name,” Gasper said. “When they hear Wayne Rooney plays for D.C. United, they want to go watch the games. He has attracted a whole new demographic of fans, not only to D.C. but all of MLS, too.”
Kallman isn’t ready to vouch for a changed MLS just yet, but D.C. United’s turnaround since Rooney signed a 3½-year contract last June speaks to his impact with one team.
Sunday’s game will remind Kallman of that all over again.
“It’s a way different task,” Kallman said. “It feels like he’s constantly manipulating you, like he’s pulling you around to where he wants. It’s going to be a team effort, just like it was against the Galaxy. Just make sure we’re in good spots and we’re defending because he brings a whole different kind of challenge.”