He lives deep in the suburbs, a five-minute drive from the Loudoun County training center. The job of reshaping a wayward MLS club consumes all hours. He hasn’t had time to golf or watch many movies. His family is back in England, where the eldest of four sons, Kai and Klay, are pupils in Manchester United’s youth academy.
Morning practices in Leesburg spill into afternoon video sessions and meetings with the front office and his staff in offices that overlook two fields behind the one-level structure located in the back of a regional park.
He’s both preparing for opponents and plotting offseason moves, evaluating who will return and who in the vast global soccer marketplace belongs on their transfer wish list.
His deputy, Pete Shuttleworth, a fellow Englishman whom Rooney hired, is living in Rooney’s house. Shuttleworth typically drives them to and from work, though he is new to the right side of the road.
“He trusts me,” Shuttleworth said, grinning. “Six weeks in, and we’re still here.”
They are here implementing an ambitious project. More than three years after Rooney (the famous striker) left, Rooney (the lightly experienced coach) is using the final stage of United’s lost season to lay the foundation for 2023.
He has jettisoned players, such as Michael Estrada, and recommended acquisitions, such as Ravel Morrison and Christian Benteke. He has brought into the fold teenage prospects, such as Jackson Hopkins and Kristian Fletcher, and experimented with formations.
The results have not changed — United is 2-5-2 since Rooney debuted July 31 — but the structure is beginning to take hold.
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Fitness levels have improved, he said, and confidence has gradually been restored. Players seem to understand what he wants. And while the team has scored only six goals in those nine games, it has conceded more than one goal just three times.
When you’re last in a 28-team league — with a 7-17-5 record, the second-fewest goals for (32) and the most against (59) en route to missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season — incremental steps are treasured.
“There’s a level of ownership and responsibility with him,” forward Miguel Berry said. “That’s the first building block. What he’s done is establish a strong base, and we’re going to build from there.”
Rooney has been encouraged by the players’ response.
“We’ve definitely moved forward from when I first came in,” he said during a 30-minute interview. “Even some of the games which we’ve lost, I have found positives. The lads are starting to understand more what I want from them both in training and on matchday. Slowly, I am seeing the team develop.”
At times, he has also stepped back and allowed players to reveal themselves. In the second half of a 6-0 home defeat to the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 20, Rooney purposely remained quiet on the sideline to see who would take responsibility and show leadership under adverse circumstances. (Midfielder Chris Durkin was the only one, he said.)
He has also made a concerted effort to learn about players who weren’t with the team when he played here in 2018 and 2019.
Two days after arriving in a trade with the Columbus Crew, Berry was planning to join Morrison in an Uber from Audi Field to temporary housing in Loudoun County. Rooney overhead them and offered a ride.
For 45 minutes, they talked about soccer and their backgrounds.
“He’s just a guy who has stories like everyone else,” said Berry, 24. “The difference is his stories are about [the Champions League and World Cup] and my stories are about under-16 youth soccer.”
Berry added, “He commands respect for who he is as a player, but he also earns it day-to-day with just being a good person and a good coach.”
Striking a bond with players is part of Rooney’s mission. He also wants them to buy into his plans.
“It’s always difficult when you come in halfway through the season, trying to get the team to change the way they play and the mentality to change,” he said. “It’s really important for me to get all the messages [through to] the team to understand the identity I want from the team.”
He wants his team to become more possession-oriented “but with a purpose and to take more risks.” Defensively, he said, “I want my teams to be horrible to play against.”
The lack of success has tested Rooney, who, as a Manchester United superstar, won five Premier League titles and one Champions League trophy. He also faced an uphill climb in his previous coaching assignment, with England’s Derby County.
Shuttleworth, though, called him “the most patient manager I’ve ever worked with.”
“He accepts that, to get to a place where we can be successful consistently, you have to go through these rocky bits in the road,” Shuttleworth said.
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Rooney has not given up trying to win this season, but with the playoffs out of reach, he is looking ahead.
“You’ll see over the last five games some of the young lads getting a bit of game time, which is an opportunity for me to see how they handle it,” he said.
Rooney also wants to evaluate experienced players — a tryout, of sorts, to determine their futures with the club. The roster is almost certain to undergo major changes this winter as the organization seeks to build around Benteke and all-star attacker Taxi Fountas.
“We’re already looking at players,” Rooney said. “We’ve got players in mind who we want to bring in, but that might take a bit of time. There’s work getting done behind the scenes and we have to find out if those players want to come.”
He declined to specify players or positions but promised that “no stone will go unturned.”
“I know the European market quite well,” he said. “Not so much the South American market [which will fall to others on the staff]. I think we need to do more on the African market.”
Identifying players is one thing; affording them is another. Asked whether ownership, headed by Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, is committed to spending what’s necessary, Rooney said: “I’ve already had those discussions before I came in. With any manager, you wouldn’t be doing your job if you weren’t pushing your owners for more. That’s normal. I’ll keep pushing them.”
Less than two years since retiring, Rooney said he has embraced coaching.
“It’s like solving a puzzle, and I love it,” he said. “You have your identity and how you want to play, but you see the game developing and what changes you can make, so you’re constantly thinking.”
Rooney’s contract is unusually short; it runs only through the 2023 season, with a club-held option in 2024. Part of that decision was tied to his ambition to coach at a high level in England.
Part of it also had to do with being apart from his family. In 2019, he cut his DC playing deal short because his wife, Coleen, didn’t like living here. The family was in Bethesda while the team trained in the District. This time, his wife and children stayed behind.
Rooney said he speaks to them every day. They came stateside a few weeks ago and took a getaway to Delaware. He plans to visit during a break in the MLS schedule this month. In the offseason, he said he will probably shuttle back and forth.
“Of course, I miss them but it’s part of the job,” he said.
Whether his DC tenure lasts 18 months or several years, Rooney said he’s committed to the cause.
“I know where I go as a manager, people are always going to look at what I’m doing and what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m not going to come in and take it lightly. I’m giving everything I can to try to develop myself as a manager but also develop the club.”