Wayne Rooney will leave D.C. United and return to England after this MLS season, ending a spectacular but short-lived spell that revitalised the organisation and brought enduring memories to the local football scene.
United and Derby County, a second-tier English club, announced today that they have reached an agreement that will allow the superstar forward to become a player and assistant coach this winter. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The captain's contract with United, which earned him a team-record US$3.5 million in base salary this season, was to have run through the 2021 season. DC United will instead clear his salary off its books starting next year. It will not receive a transfer fee from Derby.
This week, while a Derby executive met with D.C. officials in Washington and Rooney flew to England for talks with his future employers, United's effort to persuade him to stay through next season failed.
Rooney, who will turn 34 in October, will remain with DC United for the final nine regular season matches and the playoffs, should United (9-7-9, 36 points) advance.
The possibility of an immediate transfer to England is still in play, but DC United wanted to retain him for the playoff push. Besides, the optics of an abrupt move would not have reflected well on anyone involved, except maybe Derby.
Rooney said in a phone interview with the Washington Post shortly after the move was announced: "I started the season with D.C. and I made it clear I wanted to end the season with D.C. For the players, the fans, it's important I give everything to help go as far as we can."
The move, multiple people close to the situation said, was prompted by his wife's desire to live full-time again in England and closer to extended family. The couple and their four children have been living in Bethesda, Maryland, after they spent their entire lives in the Manchester-Liverpool area. Derby is 90 miles southeast of Liverpool.
"After speaking to Wayne and understanding his difficult situation of being so far away from his family, we have accepted that this is the best decision for all parties," DC United co-chairmen Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien said in a written statement. "Wayne is an exceptional leader and one of the most iconic players to play the game, so we look forward to his continued contributions to the team this season."
Rooney remains in England but is slated to rejoin United on Wednesday for conditioning, then train as normal on Thursday ahead of Sunday's showdown with fellow international star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy.
Rooney addressed United fans in the phone interview: "I hope they continue to support me and the team as we try to secure a playoff spot. Football is a game where opportunities come up and as a player, you have to make those decisions, which aren't always easy and won't please everyone."
He added, "I just hope everyone respects the decision and understands it is a step toward the next chapter in my career in football. "
Derby plays in the division known as the Championship and aiming to gain promotion to the Premier League after 12 seasons in the second division. Rooney, who has shared his desire to enter the coaching ranks when he retires, will play for and assist coach Phillip Cocu, a former Dutch star.
Rooney said in a statement he was "looking forward to joining" Cocu and the staff. "I'm sure I can make a big contribution and can't wait to meet everyone, especially supporters. I'm equally excited to begin my coaching career working with first team and Academy."
Mel Morris, executive chairman of Derby County, said: "I would like to express a sincere thanks to D.C. United for their professionalism throughout this process. We wish them every success for the remainder of their season."
Premier League club Burnley was also interested in acquiring Rooney, a person close to United said Monday.
Since his arrival last summer on a free transfer from Everton in the Premier League, Rooney has posted 23 goals and 14 assists in 43 MLS matches. His impact on the club, though, was immeasurable as he provided a performance and marketing jolt coinciding with the opening of Audi Field in July 2018.
"I remain fully focused on giving my all for the team for the rest of this season and repaying the support shown by the black-and-red faithful by hopefully delivering an MLS Cup to Audi Field," Rooney said in a statement distributed by United. "My time in Major League Soccer is something I will always be proud of. While the decision to move home was a tough one, family is everything to us and we make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England.
"The opportunity to go back home and start the next step of my career in coaching was the factor that made my mind up. I would like to thank everyone at D.C. United for the incredible support my family and I have received over my two seasons at the club."
Less than two weeks ago, Rooney skipped United's match at Atlanta to join his family vacationing in England. At the time, club officials said, he was also dealing with minor injuries and needed a break from game action. But the family issues also played a part.
He returned for the subsequent game in Chicago and reported to Orlando for the MLS All-Star Game, where he not only started against Atletico Madrid but was one of three all-stars to participate in a skills challenge a day earlier.
Dismissing tabloid reports he was looking to leave MLS, Rooney said in Orlando, "I am happy playing here."
Behind the scenes, however, United began to prepare for his possible departure as early as this fall. To provide long-term cover - and to bolster the struggling attack - the club reached a deal to acquire Ola Kamara from Chinese club Shenzhen for about $2.5 million, two people close to the MLS team said Monday. Kamara, who was among MLS's top scorers for three seasons with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy before heading overseas early this year, attended United's 5-1 defeat to the Philadelphia Union on Sunday at Audi Field and is finalizing a contract. It's unclear when he would be eligible to play.
United is also seeking to secure additional acquisitions before the transfer and trade deadline late Wednesday night.