The sight of Wayne Rooney on the Wembley touchline, celebrating as his Manchester United teammates won the EFL Cup on Sunday provided the perfect illustration of his role at the club. Not so long ago the face of England’s biggest footballing institution, now he is a peripheral figure, watching from the sidelines as everything changes around him.
Indeed, Rooney might have released a statement last week to insist he is staying at Old Trafford until the end of the season, but for all intents and purposes his time is up at United. And so he must now plot his next move, with China widely considered to be the 31-year-old’s most likely destination. MLS, it would seem, are already making a play for Rooney, though.
Reports last week claimed the Man Utd striker is attracting the attention of several MLS clubs, with the player’s agent Paul Stretford making the trip across the Atlantic to scope out potential destinations. While the report insisted no formal talks had taken place, MLS has sharpened into focus as a feasible destination for one of English football’s true greats.
The reflex reaction from most associated with, or those who take an interest in, MLS was to baulk at the suggestion of Rooney making the move to North America in the summer transfer window. After all, this is a player on the decline. His best days are behind him, with MLS taking on too many of such players over the past decade or so. The league is attempting to move away from its retirement home image.
It’s true that Rooney doesn’t fit the mould from which Designated Players are now being forced in MLS. Atlanta United, for instance, broke the league’s transfer fee record to sign 23-year-old Paraguayan international Miguel Almiron, while New York City FC used their last DP spot to sign Argentinian Maxi Morales, who only just turned 30 earlier this week.
But upon closer examination, Rooney might be worth breaking the mould for. At just 31 he is far younger than the likes of Didier Drogba or David Villa, who have both enjoyed MLS success, but the discussion over the England striker’s longevity has more to do with his fitness and energy rather than his age. Even still, Rooney might be worth the risk.
For starters, Rooney is stylistically suited to the North American game. The rough and tumble that sees so many falter in MLS would be thrived upon by the striker who has made a career from being rougher and tougher than the rest. The stylistic environment in the league is ideal for a player like Rooney.
Then there’s the abundance of playmakers in MLS that would also benefit Rooney. The North American game is well-stocked with a number of exceptional number 10s, allowing Rooney to play as a central striker, where he could limit his movement and get the most out of his ageing legs. Could you imagine someone like Nicolás Lodeiro behind Rooney? Or Diego Valeri? Or maybe even Giovani Dos Santos?
From an off-the-field perspective, the degree of anonymity in North America would also benefit a player who has become something of a tabloid staple over the course of his Premier League career. Stay in England and Rooney will likely face scrutiny over his international future. In the US or Canada, the spotlight wouldn't be so intense.
There are legitimate doubts over the prospect of Rooney making the switch to MLS, though. Whether it is completely fair or not, the striker hasn’t always given the impression of a player committed to his trade. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted as much following his retirement, that sometimes Rooney’s fitness would suffer as a result of his lifestyle. This would be a concern for any club, not just in MLS, swooping for the 31-year-old this summer.
If Rooney is to make the move to MLS he must look at Robbie Keane for a precedent. The Irishman was the model example for ageing European stars making the move to the States during his time at LA Galaxy, committing fully to the task at hand for the five years he was there, winning three MLS Cups in the process. Anything less than that commitment and Rooney would flop in MLS, just like Steven Gerrard did.
So where could Rooney pitch up? Los Angeles FC, cited by many as the most realistic destination, don’t start play in MLS until 2018, with the LA Galaxy already signing three players to DP contracts. NYC FC are also filled up, with the New York Red Bulls no longer in the business of signing big names. Seattle have a spare spot, but would their wage structure stretch to accommodate Rooney?
China has more money to offer Rooney, but the Man Utd striker might be tempted by the prospect of a move to MLS. And while it may not be immediately obvious, MLS should similarly be tempted by the prospect of Rooney one day playing there.