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Why Wayne Rooney swapped D.C. for Derby and how it limits his MLS legacy

ESPN FC's Ale Moreno says that Wayne Rooney's decision to return to England with Derby County is a major blow for both D.C. United and MLS.
Craig Burley explains the challenges Wayne Rooney will face in the Championship when he joins Derby County in January.

As break-ups go, Wayne Rooney's split with D.C. United seemed to come out of nowhere.

Rooney arrived in the nation's capital just over 12 months ago and almost immediately achieved icon status with the DCU faithful, scoring 12 goals and adding seven assists to spark the Black-and-Red to an unlikely spot in the MLS playoffs.

He has been similarly effective in 2019 and D.C. is in postseason contention, but Tuesday brought the news that Rooney, who still had two-and-a-half years to run on a contract that sees him earn a $3.5 million salary in 2019-20, will join English Championship side Derby County in a player-coach role when the winter transfer window opens in January. A source told ESPN that the move will see the 33-year-old take a pay cut.

DCU co-owner and CEO Jason Levien confirmed to ESPN FC much of what transpired and had been reported in recent days: While Rooney continues to enjoy life in MLS, his family had found it difficult to settle and is eager for a return to England. Rooney took a short trip home after a July 18 match against FC Cincinnati to not only heal some nagging injuries but get in some family time. Upon his return, he expressed concerns.

"When [Rooney] came back he said he had a strong desire to return home, and not just to the U.K., but to his house where he lives, and didn't know if he was going to be able to continue after this season, or for the full [length] of his contract," said Levien, who noted Rooney had "never lived outside of a 30-40-mile radius his entire life until he came to Washington."

"We talked about that," Levien added, "and the personal side of it, and what it meant for the club and what it meant for him, and how we could accept that and make the best out of the situation for everybody, and be supportive of what was going on with his personal life, his need to move back home."

During last week's All-Star Game festivities, player and club plotted a way forward. Derby County's situation, with Philip Cocu newly installed as manager, appealed to Rooney, who desires to get into coaching, and the broad strokes of a deal were hashed out over the weekend with the club's CEO, Steve Pearce. Rooney flew to England on Monday night and finalized the move the following day.

"The opportunity came up for me to join Derby County in January, as a player but also as a coach, which was important to start that transition for the next stage of my career," Rooney said in an interview with DCU's website. "But also for my family and myself to be back in England around our extended family and friends was part of the reason also."

D.C. United sources confirmed that there is no transfer fee involved in the deal and that the marketing agreement attached to Rooney's contract, which has been reported as a seven-year deal worth $2.5m, will no longer apply. The team is exploring a "different relationship" with the player, according to one source.

Rooney will leave behind enduring memories, like the Herculean effort last season against Orlando City when, with his goalkeeper committed upfield, he tackled the ball away from Will Johnson at midfield, then turned and dribbled before launching a laser-guided cross that Luciano Acosta headed home for the game winner.

Wayne Rooney looks on during D.C. United's MLS match at Minnesota United.
Wayne Rooney's time in MLS has been a success, but he could have achieved even more.

In conjunction with the opening of Audi Field, Rooney helped galvanize a franchise that had been stuck in the doldrums, content to exist on a shoestring budget as efforts to get a stadium plodded along. Further, he gave the team considerable cachet in the crowded D.C. sports market.

One certainly can't begrudge Rooney for putting his family first, but while there does not appear to be any acrimony over his departure, there is a sense that his contribution will be less than it might have been; not because he performed poorly, just not long enough. It also leaves the impression that DCU's momentum has been arrested.

"Legacies come from winning trophies," Rooney admitted this week, and that he is not leaving immediately means there is time to add to his American story. Ben Olsen's side is fourth in the Eastern Conference and targeting a playoff run, but this news dents optimism and that trend will continue if Acosta, whose contract is up at the end of the season, also departs. Further, the loans of Bill Hamid, Leonardo Jara and Lucas Rodriguez expire at the end of the 2019 campaign.

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Levien, though, does not believe that DCU's upward trajectory will be overly affected.

"We never thought that Wayne was going to stay here forever," said Levien. "We anticipated probably being here the full length of his agreement with us, but we're good and we're in a very different place than before Wayne arrived. We've got our stadium, we've got a lot of momentum from that. We've grown our fan base, we've grown the visibility of our club in a big way the last two seasons. We don't plan to rest on our laurels or stop there. We want to take it to a whole new level."

Hours after Rooney's move was announced, DCU traded for Felipe Martins. It has also lined up the signing of forward Ola Kamara and sources confirmed a Washington Post report of talks with Argentine midfielder Mateo Garcia over a $3 million transfer. The reported interest in Mesut Ozil, while tantalizing, represents a very different value proposition.

While those moves will soften the impact of Rooney's eventual departure, more needs to be done. The former England captain represented a unique opportunity in terms of name recognition and ability and in the last 12 months  proved his worth on and off the field. The extent to which Kamara, Garcia or any others pick up slack is not yet known.

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