At the beginning of the 2018 Major League Soccer season, D.C. United found themselves in disarray. The once-proud franchise, which finished dead last the previous year, started 2W-7L-5D. Then, however, a certain ruddy English forward arrived and fortunes shifted.
"A lot of things happened at once last year," James Lambert, president of the Screaming Eagles supporters' group, said. "[Wayne] Rooney showed up the same day they opened Audi Field, really at the same time they were making major changes in the front office with leadership there as well."
From that point on, United -- who take on the Portland Timbers on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- accumulated 11 wins and four draws against just two loses, going unbeaten in their final 10 regular-season games. Although they lost their first playoff game in a penalty shootout to Gregg Berhalter and Zack Steffen's Columbus Crew, the prospects for 2019 looked strong.
"The combination of all the changes, Rooney coming in, and how well they played on that streak last year, there was generally a feeling of optimism around the club," Lambert said. "There were a number of us, I would count myself among them, that thought this was the first team we had talent-wise in a decade that could really compete."
A victory over reigning MLS Cup holders Atlanta United in the season's opening game, followed by seven wins and just three losses in the season's first 12 games, only added to the hype. Then, disaster. Ben Olsen's squad managed only two wins in the 13 matches between mid-May and early August, victories over lowly expansion team FC Cincinnati and perpetually floundering Orlando City.
The underlying numbers were even worse. Heading into the weekend, United sit tied for 18th in shots per game at 12.3, putting only 3.7 of those on target (20th in the league). They have the second-worst total-shots ratio, according to American Soccer Analysis, and the difference between their expected goals for and expected goals against is minus-14.7. Two teams -- Cincy and the Vancouver Whitecaps -- have a worse differential. In other words: Not. Good.
Oh, and in August, Rooney announced he's leaving the team at the conclusion of the 2019 season to take a spot as player/manager of Derby County. The forward hasn't been bad this year with 11 goals and seven assists in 25 games, but it's far from his electric 2018 performance. Earlier in the summer, he sang Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" at a Georgetown piano karaoke bar, which just about sums things up.
"It was a long summer," Olsen said with typical understatement. "It was a grind for us."
But hey, this is MLS, and despite the struggles and the chaos, United have managed to eek out a couple of results, including a 3-0 away win against the Montreal Impact in their last match, and sit tied for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Make the playoffs and who knows?
"I've seen so many different roads to winning an MLS Cup as a player and as a coach," Olsen said. "The offensive stuff, if we can get that to click a little bit more over the next month, I wouldn't want to play us if we got in."
During the transfer window, United brought in reinforcements, including Felipe Martins, Emmanuel Boateng and Ola Kamara. (Olsen on the Kamara addition: "Do we need a No. 9? Not necessarily. We have a guy named Wayne who is filling that role. But with the Wayne situation for next year, Ola's name came across. He's a guy who can not only give us a bit of a boost in the short term, but he's a long-term play as a starting No. 9 going forward.") Those three, combined with a break for the international window, provided Olsen and his charges a chance to reset and rest up for the stretch run. Rooney and Luciano Acosta, another player in the midst of a lost season, played 90 minutes in a friendly against Puebla, the Englishman nearly tallying a spectacular free kick in the dying stages.
Rooney vowed to continue pushing toward the playoffs, and Olsen sees no reason not to believe the forward.
"Wayne doesn't differ too much emotionally," the coach said. "He shows up and he goes about his business. That's always been the case with him. He's low-maintenance with that stuff as far as being at training and doing what he's always done: competing, training and being an overall good influence."
Four games left -- home against Seattle and Cincy, away at Portland and New York Red Bulls -- to determine the success or failure of 2019. A weird, difficult year; an ending unwritten.
"There's been drama," Olsen said. "No question. A little bit more than I would have liked, but I do feel like we're past a lot of this, and the focus is now about the last month of the season. I think the guys have good blinders on about what the task is. I'm looking forward to it as well."