Ask just about anyone associated with D.C. United what their most enduring memory of Wayne Rooney was during his first season with the team, and they'll inevitably recall the Englishman's epic sequence against Orlando City on Aug. 12.
With DCU throwing everything forward in search of a game winner -- including goalkeeper David Ousted -- the Lions broke on a counter-attack with the goal empty. In stepped Rooney, who chased down Will Johnson, won the ball back with a tackle in his own half, raced into the attacking half and then hit an inch-perfect cross that was headed in by Luciano Acosta to give United a last-gasp 3-2 victory.
It's a play that will go down in MLS lore, but invariably the conversation shifts to gestures from Rooney that don't show up on camera or the score sheet. Prior to assuming the captaincy, Rooney sought out his predecessor, Steve Birnbaum, to make sure the move had his blessing. When Paul Arriola's father passed away last month, it was Rooney who made sure the players wore black armbands in their next game to show their support. And when Arriola returned to the field on Oct. 21 and was hit with a wave of emotion after the final whistle, it was Rooney who picked up and got him in a bear hug.
"It's those little things, rather than all his goals and all his plays, that will really stick with me," said Arriola about Rooney.
D.C. United's season is over now of course, having been bounced in the knockout round on penalties by a resurgent Columbus Crew side. Rooney was one of those who didn't convert his attempt in the shootout, but there is no doubting what an unqualified success he has been since his arrival. He recorded 12 goals and seven assists in 20 appearances, and along the way made everyone around him -- Acosta in particular -- more effective. Most importantly, he led DCU from rock bottom of the Eastern Conference all the way up to fourth place and a playoff spot.
There were other factors that contributed to DCU's revival, with goalkeeper Bill Hamid rejoining the club on loan and Russell Canouse returning from injury to provide some steel in the center of midfield. A home-heavy schedule during the back half of the season also provided a platform for improved results. But Rooney was the catalyst and is one of the finalists for the league's MVP award. The fact that he only played little more than half the season works against him, but he is easily the MVP for the second half.
Rooney's success provides a stark contrast when set against the skepticism that accompanied his arrival. The reactions to the signing of the former England captain ranged from simple doubts about his overall impact to downright contempt that DCU would bring in an aging star, especially at a point in MLS' history when players arriving from abroad have tended to be younger.
As for why that was the case, his age, mileage and decreasing production created some misgivings. The fact that Rooney was occasionally fodder for the English tabloids also served to overshadow some of his less well-known qualities. Then there is the "show me, don't tell me" cynicism that accompanies all designated players, one that only evaporates after said player backs up his resume with performances on the field. And even if a player does well, that doesn't always erase the sense that they're there to cruise toward retirement.
"There's been guys who are full of s--- who have come into this league for vacation, with [Rooney's] type of pedigree, and still done well," said DCU manager Ben Olsen. "That's the reality."
Yet Olsen noted that such an approach isn't in Rooney's DNA, which is why the Black and Red's ownership ultimately put down the kind of money to bring the forward stateside.
"We didn't go into this blind," said Olsen. "When you do research on Wayne, whether it's teammates, managers and coaches who have dealt with him in the past, it's the same answer across the board: highly competitive, brings it every day, winner, a good teammate who is going to give you everything he has on game day."
From the first day of training, those attributes saw the former Everton and Manchester United forward put any lingering doubts to rest. Part of it is down to his own drive, and eagerness to prove he was worth his multi-million-dollar salary.
"I knew what I was coming here for," Rooney told ESPN FC via telephone. "I was trying to help the team in some way, and put in the work and earn my right to play, and try and help the team progress up the league."
But in a year that also witnessed the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to MLS, the lengths to which Rooney has gone to ingratiate himself with his teammates have shown a different side of the forward, and speak to his ability to assimilate quickly to his new surroundings. In fact, his approach has in many ways he's been the anti-Zlatan. While Ibrahimovic is all bombast and can grate on teammates, Rooney's humble style provided exactly the kind of leadership DCU needed. He has also shown a willingness to be one of the guys, even taking part in the players' fantasy football league (both NFL and soccer variety).
"I haven't done too great," said a rueful Rooney about his fantasy exploits. He's willing to take his lumps, though. "It's important. A lot of times the players will speak about the NFL or the basketball, so if you have no knowledge of it you can't really take part in on the conversation. It helps a little bit to join in."
That simple wisdom is the foundation for Rooney's deft handling of locker room matters. Rooney isn't a loud captain, but he isn't the aloof superstar either. He seems to always say and do the right thing at the moment required. It's a skill that Olsen didn't know Rooney had when the player signed.
"[Rooney] understands the locker room as good as anyone I've ever seen; whether that's the right time to take the guys out for a bite, whether it's time to have a meeting, whether it's time to get into some guys at halftime," he said. "He's a got a real good feel for that. I think he's very observant and I think he's picked up a lot along the way and you see it day in and day out. I think the guys have really taken to him."
Given the managers Rooney has played for and the players he's played with, perhaps none of this should be surprising. But leadership is one of those things that is harder than it looks. The wrong approach can divide a locker room and even make it combustible. In Rooney's case, it meant borrowing bits and pieces from the likes of Roy Keane at club level as well as Steven Gerrard and David Beckham with England, and then putting his own twist on it.
"I think you can have your own style obviously but you pick things up along the way, and obviously I've worked under some great captains and they're all different in their own way," Rooney said. "I think also as captain, the main thing you want to do is keep the players happy and make the right decisions for the players because you're there as captain to represent the players."
It's also about forging individual relationships. Canouse recalls that when Rooney arrived the two were both trying to regain their fitness and spent considerable time together in the gym as a result. He proceeded to pick Rooney's brain about the game, talking in particular about former Manchester United great Paul Scholes.
"He's someone that you can go to if you have an issue or if something isn't going your way," said Canouse about Rooney. "Just that personable nature to him is beneficial in terms of his leadership qualities."
Being a leader usually goes hand in hand with on-field performances. In most cases, you can't be effective in one area without success in the other. Rooney clearly delivered in both realms.
"What you try and do is try and adapt and make sure the way you play helps bring the best out of other players because there's no point in me coming here and saying, 'Right, I just want to be a goal scorer, I want to be the one getting all the headlines.' That's not the case. I want to try and help the players because when I'm helping players perform better, then you're scoring goals or creating goals. If I can do some things to help them players then it only benefits the team."
The trick now is to sustain it, although the forward seems well positioned to do that as well, while continuing to hit the right notes. When the topic of an offseason loan came up, Rooney stated he wasn't interested, preferring to keep his focus on his current club, while also allowing his family to continue getting settled in.
"I didn't want to come over in a year or two years' time when maybe you might not have the impact on the team that you might have liked," he said. "I wanted to come over and show obviously first of all that I was still capable of playing, but also capable of having an impact and show respect to the league because you do hear of European players coming over because they want to enjoy the lifestyle or whatever and to me, the most important thing was for me to come over and enjoy me football and if I do that, that would go hand in hand with the time living here with my family."
The foundation has been laid. Next year Rooney and D.C. United will have the chance to build on their success.