At the end of the 2022 season, Wayne Rooney sat in front of the assembled media, released a large sigh, and said, “Thank God the season’s over” after D.C. United lost to FC Cincinnati.
The former English international took over United in early July after D.C. fired its first head coach and lost four of five games with its interim at the helm. While he found some success experimenting with his lineups and filling in the roster with midseason acquisitions, Rooney could not help United escape its fate, finishing the year in last place with a league-worst 27 points.
About four months later, Rooney heads into his first full season in charge of the Black and Red motivated after a roster overhaul brought in new talent and depth that can handle a more possession-based offense. He said on Thursday that his focus is less on what other teams are doing to prepare for the upcoming MLS season, and to improve from last season.
“Our goal, of course, I’m sure like any other team, is to try and make playoffs,” Rooney said. “So that’s what we’ve been trying to do, but really, our focus is on Toronto on Saturday. That’s our main focus, and try to start the season on the positive.”
Roster overhaul adds experience, depth
When asked about coming into the 2023 season, midfielder Russell Canouse told WTOP that returning players are looking to start the season strong, especially now that they have had time to work on Rooney’s preferred playing style.
“We don’t want to be in the position we were last year and also not being able to compete in games and win games,” he said. “So it’s always good to be able to start from new, have a brand new slate, and obviously integrate new players into the team and have that motivation going into the first game.”
Rooney plans to implement a more possession-based attack while playing more compact on the defensive side. United’s front office stepped up to sign eight players through free agency or transfers.
The biggest move was the addition of midfielder Mateusz Klich. The 32-year-old signed to become United’s third designated player — high-priced talents whose wages don’t entirely count against a team’s salary cap — joining striker Christian Benteke and attacker Taxi Fountas.
Known for his creative passing abilities, Klich spent the last six years playing for Leeds United, helping the West Yorkshire side climb up the soccer pyramid in England, earning promotion to the English Premier League in 2020. The Polish international said he was up for the challenge of helping improve D.C.’s fortunes after their previous season.
“I like to challenge myself, and that’s the reason I’m here,” Klich said. “It is a big challenge to succeed, new country, new league, new culture, new everything, so my life just turned 180 degrees. And I’m here and ready to go because I know people expect a lot of things from us.”
All three DPs are expected to shoulder much of the offensive side of the ball following the departure of striker Ola Kamara, who scored nine of D.C.’s 36 goals last season.
D.C. added midfielder Pedro Santos through MLS’ free agency, adding depth for Canouse and Victor Pálsson. United also helped its defense with two trades for center back Derrick Williams (Los Angeles Galaxy) and right back Ruan (Orlando). Williams, however, will be out for opening week with an injury.
The Black and Red found more help for its wings when signing defender and Iraqi international Mohanad Jeahze from Hammarby International sports federations from the Swedish first division. He will look to play on the left wing back while Alexandria, Virginia, native Andy Najar — returning for the third year of his second stint with United — competes with Ruan for playing time on the right.
D.C. also moved on from all four goalkeepers that played in 2022. DeMatha Catholic High School alum Bill Hamid, the club’s longest-serving player (13 seasons), was let go after his contract expired. Mexican international goalkeeper David Ochoa left after contract talks with United ended without a new deal. D.C. declined the option on backup goalie Jon Kempin’s contract, and Rafael Romo departed in January for South America.
In their place, D.C. added two goalkeepers with solid MLS experience through free agency: Tyler Miller and Alex Bono. They also signed 24-year-old Luis Zamudio from their former USL affiliate Loudoun United FC. The three keepers battled each other throughout the offseason in hopes of winning the starting job.
When asked if any of the three had been named the starter, Rooney remained coy, stating that he was pleased with their performances, making his job of picking a starter harder.
“If I’m being honest, I’d be confident in putting any one of the three in,” Rooney said.
According to Canouse, the new additions have started to gel well with returning players while adding depth and experience to the team. Midfielder Chris Durkin — who returned to D.C. last season after spending two years in Europe — told WTOP it was crucial to get help on the defensive side to stop ‘leaking goal’ this year.
“We were giving away too many goals last year, and I know that’s been the focus is a better structure now and moving forward from there,” said Durkin. “You can’t win games unless you keep the clean sheet sometimes. And that’s got to be the focus first, and now, it’s about going and good scoring goals.”
United will also look to balance parts of the season to highlight its young stars from its academy system. Rooney said 16-year-old defender Matai Akinmboni, attacker Ted Ku-Dipietro and goalkeeper Luis Zamudio trained with Swansea City of the English second division during the offseason. Since their European adventure, all three players have excelled during the preseason.
Along with other youth players, like Homegrown midfielder Jackson Hopkins, Rooney said he would “not have a problem” starting any of them throughout the season.
“It’s about finding the right balance of using the young players at the right times because we can’t forget they are young players, and they need that battle in time,” he said.
Everyone has responded well to Rooney’s methods, Canouse said, adding that the coach has created a solid baseline for his players to excel.
“Wayne is a guy that, off the fields, he’s not very demanding,” Durkin said. “He kind of lets everybody be themselves, but when you step foot on the pitch, that’s where you have to give 100%, and he expects everybody to compete.”
Off-the-field changes and expectations
As United looks to rebuild, Major League Soccer prepares to launch itself into a 10-year, $2.5 billion partnership with Apple TV. Starting this year, every match — regular season, postseason, Leagues Cup, the All-Star game and developmental leagues — can be accessed on the Apple TV app, allowing fans to watch without local blackouts or restrictions.
Univision and Fox Sports will also broadcast a smaller pool of matches, but the Apple deal means no local regional broadcasts will show MLS matches.
While former Spanish-speaking announcer Moises Linares (formally of NBC Washington and Telemundo 44) joined MLS’ move to Apple TV, longtime play-by-play commentator (and WTOP alum) Dave Johnson plans to stay local as United returns to radio airwaves on 1190 iHeart Sports DC and the iHeartRadio App.
According to a release, MLS Season Pass will provide the home team’s radio call as an audio option for the 2023 season, giving United fans the ability to listen to Johnson’s radio calls directly in the Apple TV app. Bruce Murray, former United States National Team player between 1985-1993 and a Montgomery County native, will accompany Johnson to begin the season.
Along with the broadcasting changes, D.C. will pause its season in mid-July to participate in the Leagues Cup, a World Cup-style tournament between MLS and Liga MX teams with the top three clubs into the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League. United is paired with Pumas and CF Montréal in the East 2 group.
The new tournament, along with United’s new cherry blossom jersey and Audi Field hosting the MLS All-Star game, is helping build momentum in the sport before the U.S. hosts the World Cup, Durkin said.
“I think it only shows the growth that’s going to continue to happen as we approach the 2026 World Cup, and I think that everybody has their eyes on it,” he said. “The level of growth that we’re going to see over these next five to 10 years is going to be astronomical, in my opinion.”
Despite all the off-the-field excitement, Rooney said United must get into the playoffs this season. He’s looking to restore its history of championships, which happened before the Englishman’s arrival to D.C., saying that it should be standard for United to make the playoffs.
“The playoffs is the main priority, whether that changes slightly this year, next year, the years gone by, doesn’t really matter,” Rooney said. “The priority is to try and get there, and then, you’re in a knockout competition, so we just focus on trying to get there first.”