In Wayne Rooney debut, D.C. United rallies for stunning win


Minutes before D.C. United’s match against Orlando City began Sunday, Wayne Rooney climbed the steps behind Audi Field’s south goal and took in the warm welcome from a gathering crowd.

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

What transpired over the subsequent two hours in misty conditions rekindled some of the magic that Rooney injected as a striker in 2018 and 2019. Staring at another defeat, United not only tied the score in the waning moments but won it in the last seconds of stoppage time, 2-1.

Chris Durkin scored the equalizer on a one-timer from the heart of the penalty area, then Taxi Fountas volleyed in from 12 yards, triggering bedlam 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 consulting role until he received his work visa late last week. “Character is a big word I have used over the last couple of weeks with the team. We need to be a team that shows a lot of character and fight and togetherness.”

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

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

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United’s persistence finally paid off in staggering fashion. As the first minute of stoppage time elapsed, substitute Ola Kamara snapped a left-sided cross to Durkin for a rising effort and his first goal of the year.

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

Martín Rodríguez, a substitute, served a long ball to Kimarni Smith, a sub. Smith volleyed the ball from the left side into the center of the box, where Fountas one-timed it into the right corner for his team-best 11th goal. Almost four weeks ago, Fountas recorded a hat trick in Orlando.

“I am proud the guys didn’t settle for a tie,” captain Steven Birnbaum said.

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

What he has instilled, the players said, is belief and the freedom to express themselves.

“A big thing which I’ve seen in my research on the team is when a player makes a mistake, they suffer and really found it difficult to come back from that,” 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 it again. That’s part of the game. Giving the players that freedom of mind and to be able to do that is starting to make a difference.”

It did not start well….

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