In Wayne Rooney’s debut, DC United are in contention for a stunning win

In Wayne Rooney’s debut, DC United are in contention for a stunning win

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Minutes before DC United’s game against Orlando City began on Sunday, Wayne Rooney climbed the steps behind the south gate of Audi Field and enjoyed the warm welcome of the assembled crowd.

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

What transpired over the next two hours in foggy conditions sparked some of the magic Rooney exuded as a forward in 2018 and 2019. Faced with yet another defeat, United not only equalized in the waning moments but won it in the closing seconds of the break, 2-1.

Chris Durkin equalized with a one-timer from the heart of the box, then Taxi Fountas volleyed in from 12 yards out, causing chaos among the 15,805 at Buzzard Point.

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

After falling behind early on, United (6-12-3) showed those qualities in a rousing second half to win for only their second win since early May.

“That’s exactly what we needed,” said defenseman Brendan Hines-Ike. “We have 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 persistence eventually paid off in amazing ways. As the first minute of injury time elapsed, substitute Ola Kamara fired in a cross from the left to Durkin, scoring his first goal of the year.

“When we scored the goal,” Durkin said, “we were still under pressure and we still wanted to score another goal.”

Substitute Martín Rodríguez served a long ball to Kimarni Smith, who came on as a substitute. Smith fired the ball from the left to the center of the box, where Fountas fired it once into the right corner to score his best 11th goal. Almost four weeks ago, Fountas scored 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 bested Orlando (8-9-6) with goals, including a 60-yarder, and a remarkable tackle assist sequence that cemented his place in United history. His influence as manager was limited on Sunday as United went through squad changes and found themselves bottom of the table.

What he has instilled, the players said, is faith and the freedom to express yourself.

“One big thing that I saw in my research about the team is when a player makes a mistake, they suffer and have found it really difficult to come back from it,” Rooney said. “I understand 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’s part of the game. Giving players that freedom of thought and being able to do that is starting to make a difference.”

It didn’t start well. Orlando took the lead in the ninth minute, United’s fifth concede in seven games in the first 15 minutes.

After a DC giveaway in midfield, Alexandre Pato slid the ball forward to Júnior Urso for a one-timer from the top corner of the box. As goalkeeper Rafael Romo was far from his line, Urso delicately flicked into the other side.

In the 28th minute, Romo was caught charging forward with a long ball and amid a mad scramble from his defenders to cover an open net, Pato went wide. Ten minutes later, Orlando’s Benji Michel missed an open goal.

The game started with Rodríguez, a Chilean winger who made his debut last weekend, coming in at half-time. Fountas had a glorious chance to equalize in the 61st minute, but Pedro Gallese made a sensational save with his leg.

United brimmed with energy and opportunity, culminating in the late two goals.

“Now it’s about consistency,” Hines-Ike said. “Can DC United put together a set of results? Or has it been going back to the same thing over the past few months? We can no longer accept that.”

Here’s what else you should know about United’s win:

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Romo made his eighth straight start and Jon Kempin was the usual reinforcement but the pecking order will change with the acquisition of Real Salt Lake’s David Ochoa last week.

Ochoa, 21, is due to travel to Charlotte on Wednesday and seems almost certain. In this case, Romo would drop to #2 on the depth chart.

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

Estrada left the squad again

Striker Michael Estrada was a healthy scratch for the second straight game, a sign United are likely planning to end their seasonal loan spell from Mexican club Toluca soon. The Ecuador national team member has four goals and four assists in 16 league games (11 starts) but has not scored since May 21.

United have an option to buy his contract for $5 million after this season. His return to Toluca would see the club vacate the senior roster spot, including an international slot. …

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

Midfielders Russell Canouse (leg injury) and Ted Ku-DiPietro (recovering from non-Covid illness) were unavailable. Midfielder Victor Palsson, who was acquired from German club Schalke last week, is awaiting a work visa. …

Rooney’s debut wasn’t the only Sunday. Ravel Morrison, a well-travelled attacking midfielder who played for Rooney at Derby County, had 90 minutes.

Beginning at the six minute mark, one minute of applause was held in memory of Len Oliver, a National Soccer Hall of Famer and longtime figure in DC soccer, who died July 24. He was 88 years old. The family members present wore jerseys with No. 6, Oliver’s number as a player.