WASHINGTON: A "hell of a run" for Wayne Rooney and his Major League Soccer team in Washington ended in a heartbreaking shootout late Thursday at the end of the record-breaking England goalscorer's first season based on foreign soil.
Rooney, 33, was what his coach called the "catalyst" for a turnaround that saw his club DC United, at the bottom of the Eastern Conference when he first donned United's black jersey in July, leap to a fourth-place finish and home field advantage in Thursday night's knockout playoff round.
DC lost by a whisker to Columbus Crew, losing on penalty kicks 3-2 after a 2-2 tie before more than 20,000 fans.
Rooney, who scored 208 goals in his 16 Premier League seasons, and 12 since he joined DC United, led off the penalty shootout.
But his effort was saved by the Crew's diving keeper Zack Steffen.
"The guys gave everything," a subdued coach Ben Olsen said after the match at Audi Field, the new stadium which opened in time for Rooney's arrival and added to the team's fresh look.
"It was a hell of a run. Don't let this result spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation" for what he called "the new DC United."
Olsen said it was a group effort, and singled out other players including Argentina's Luciano Acosta for their contribution.
But it was Rooney who has "certainly been the catalyst for this turnaround," Olsen told reporters at training prior to the playoff match.
The former Manchester United and England superstar, who began an English Premier League career with his hometown club of Everton at the age of 16, humbly earned his status as team captain in Washington.
"He brings a lot of things, you know: good mentality, good fighting spirit. He showed us a lot of things. In the locker room. In the field as well," said defender Frederic Brillant, of France.
"Wayne is a very good guy. He tried to help everybody."
Rooney helped bear the load of a young squad under pressure, Olsen said.
"Wayne's been under this type of pressure for a long time. I think he takes a little bit off the rest of the guys," he said, adding that Rooney improved other players, especially his partner Acosta who scored nine goals after Rooney arrived.
"And then inside the locker room he gets it. He's been in a locker room since he was 16 with some great teams, some great managers, and so he understands the rhythm of the season, what to say, what not to say. It makes my job easy," Olsen said.
- 'One of the guys' -
Emotions ran hot late in the two and a half-hour drama. Rooney banged the turf after he went down in extra time, and confronted the referee when the shootout ended.
"No one said a word in that locker room right now. They're gutted," Olsen said at the post-match press conference, where he said Rooney "helped us tremendously."
Rooney is the latest big-name British and international footballer to join the 23-year-old MLS.
David Beckham paved the way with his 2007 transfer to LA Galaxy, a club which also lured Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Robbie Keane and, this year, Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Rooney signed a three and a half-year deal said to be worth $13 million with DC United, and has settled in to Washington life away from the public scrutiny that dogged him in England.
"It's been very relaxed," he told ESPN shortly after his arrival in the US capital. People "seem to respect your privacy a lot more over here."
Defender Steven Birnbaum said Rooney has been a great leader who "just wants to be one of the guys.
"I guess that's the biggest thing. He doesn't want to be treated like a superstar that he is."
Olsen is counting on that leadership to continue when Rooney starts his first full season with DC United in 2019.
"Looking forward to next year," the coach said.
Fans, too, have faith that this is only the beginning of their love affair with a US-based Rooney and the "new" DC United.
"Ever since he came to the team, the team's made a big improvement," said Danny Rodriguez, 29, of Virginia, who wore a DC United jersey bearing Rooney's name.
"I think they're gonna do wonderful, and many more years to come."