In Wayne Rooney debut, DC United rally for stunning win


Minutes before DC United’s game against Orlando City started on Sunday, Wayne Rooney climbed the steps behind Audi Field’s south goal and was greeted warmly by a gathering crowd.

It had been four years since he arrived in Washington as a player, but on this second tour he took on the responsibility of a head coach tasked with rejuvenating a team going through tough times.

What happened over the next two hours in foggy conditions revived some of the magic that Rooney injected as a striker in 2018 and 2019. As he stared at another defeat, United not only tied the score in the dwindling moments, but won it in the closing seconds of stoppage time, 2-1.

Chris Durkin scored the equalizer on a one-timer from the center of the penalty area, then Taxi Fountas shot in from 12 yards, leading to bedlam under 15,805 at Buzzard Point.

“The season should start now,” said Rooney, who was hired three weeks ago but was limited to an advisory role until he received his work visa late last week. “Character is a big word that I’ve been using with the team over the past few weeks. We have to be a team that shows a lot of character and struggle and togetherness.”

After falling behind early, United (6-12-3) showed those qualities in a stirring second half, winning for only the second time since early May.

“That’s exactly what we needed,” defender Brendan Hines-Ike said. “We need to know that we can win games. You lose so many games, you forget what it’s like to win.”

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United’s perseverance paid off in the end. With the first minute of stoppage time up, substitute Ola Kamara fired a left cross to Durkin for a rising effort and his first goal of the year.

“When we got the goal,” said Durkin, “we were still pushing and we wanted to score another goal.”

Martín Rodríguez, a substitute, served a long ball to Kimarni Smith, a sub. Smith volleyed the ball from the left into the center of the box, where Fountas shot it once into the right corner for his eleventh team goal. Nearly four weeks ago, Fontas recorded a hat-trick in Orlando.

“I’m proud that the boys didn’t settle for a draw,” said Captain Steven Birnbaum.

As a player, Rooney stunned Orlando (8-9-6) with goals, including a 60-yarder, and a remarkable tackle-assist streak that cemented his place in United’s history. As a coach, with United undergoing roster changes and the team bottom of the standings, his influence had limits on Sunday.

What he has taught, the players said, is faith and the freedom to express himself.

“One important thing I’ve seen in my research on the team is that when a player makes a mistake, they suffer and find it really hard to get back from it,” said Rooney. “I understand that players will make mistakes – no problem. I want them to try things. I want them to risk the ball in the right areas. And if they make a mistake and give the ball away, try again. That is part of the game. The players who give freedom of mind and can do that start to make a difference.”

It didn’t start well. Orlando took the lead in the ninth minute, the fifth time in seven games United had conceded a goal in the first fifteen minutes.

After a DC giveaway in midfield, Alexandre Pato slid the ball forward to Júnior Urso in the pass for a one-timer from the top corner of the penalty area. With goalkeeper Rafael Romo far from his line, Urso subtly poked it in the far side.

In the 28th minute, Romo was caught thrusting forward with a long ball, and amid a frenzied struggle by his defenders to cover an open net, Pato missed high. Ten minutes later, Orlando’s Benji Michel missed an open net.

The game started to swing with the halftime entry of Rodríguez, a Chilean winger who made his debut the previous weekend. Fountas had a brilliant chance to equalize in the 61st minute, but Pedro Gallese made a sensational leg-saver.

United was buzzing with energy and opportunities, culminating in two late goals.

“Now it’s about consistency,” Hines-Ike said. “Can DC United compile a series of results? Or is it going back to the same old same old for the last few months? We can’t take that anymore.”

Here’s what else you need to know about United’s win:

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Romo made his eighth start in a row and Jon Kempin was the usual backup, but with the Real Salt Lake acquisition of David Ochoa last week, the pecking order is about to change.

Ochoa, 21, is scheduled to travel to Charlotte on Wednesday and looks almost certain to start. In that case, Romo would drop to number 2 on the depth map.

Bill Hamid, the longtime starter who is in the final year of his contract, continues to rehabilitate a hand injury that required surgery on June 30. The original timetable for his return was two to three months.

Estrada was off the selection again

Striker Michael Estrada was a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game, a sign that United are likely to end his season-long loan from Mexican club Toluca soon. The Ecuadorian national team member has four goals and four assists in 16 league appearances (11 starts) but has not scored since May 21.

United have an option to buy his contract after this season for $5 million. By bringing him back to Toluca, the club would free up space on the senior roster, including an international slot. …

Striker Nigel Robertha, who has one goal and three assists in 14 games (five starts), was also scratched. He has a contract until 2023. …

Midfielders Russell Canouse (leg injury) and Ted Ku-DiPietro (non-covid disease recovery) were unavailable. Midfielder Victor Palsson, who was acquired from German club Schalke last week, is waiting for a work visa. …

Rooney’s debut wasn’t the only Sunday. Ravel Morrison, a much traveled attacking midfielder who played for Rooney in Derby County, made 90 minutes.

After six minutes, there was a minute of applause in memory of Len Oliver, a National Soccer Hall of Famer and longtime figure of DC area soccer who passed away on July 24. He was 88. The relatives present were wearing sweaters marked No. 6, Oliver’s number as a player.

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