DC United: How Wayne Rooney's signings from the Premier League have aided MLS play-offs bid

2R4FDCR Toronto, Can. 27th May, 2023. May 27, 2023, TORONTO, ON, CAN: DC United Head Coach Wayne Rooney is seen on the touch line before MLS action against Toronto FC, in Toronto on Saturday, May 27, 2023. (Credit Image: © Chris Young/The Canadian Press via Credit: Zuma Press/Alamy Live News

DC United’s offseason was busier than most other MLS clubs after their hugely disappointing 2022 season that saw them finish a full 21 points adrift of the play-offs.

13 players headed for the exit over the winter, including club legend Bill Hamid, and in came Mateusz Klich from Leeds United as a designated player, as well as right-back Ruan via trade with Orlando City and a successor to Hamid in free agent signing Tyler Miller.

Derrick Williams and Pedro Santos also arrived and have become starters in Rooney’s pivot to a 3-4-3, having experimented with variations of a back four in a troubled 2022 campaign in which DC amassed just 27 points.

In his first full season as DC United head coach, Rooney has steered the club’s prospects towards the possibility of a first play-off appearance since 2019 rather than at the lower reaches of the Supporters’ Shield.

With former Aston Villa and Liverpool striker Christian Benteke leading the line, and Klich making an immediate impact with 58 chances created – the most of any MLS midfielder – Rooney’s recruitment from over the pond has complemented a squad that has surpassed last season’s points tally with 11 games still to be played.

The loan signing of Lewis O’Brien from Nottingham Forest is due to expire this week, but not without Rooney confirming DC had explored extending his time in the Eastern Conference. His future, though, looks to lie in England with Sheffield United strongly-linked with a permanent transfer.

Rooney himself arrived as a player at DC United as an icon of the Premier League, so let’s take a closer look at how his journey back to the league to sign the trio of Benteke, Klich and O’Brien has aided the four-time MLS Cup champions. (Note: figures exclude matchday-23).

Christian Benteke, striker

PFF shooting grade: 81.8 (position rank: 12/97)

Christian Benteke has been instrumental in DC’s turnaround this season, tallying eight goals and three assists so far.

Signed from Crystal Palace last August as a designated player, he was unable to make an immediate impact in his seven appearances in 2022. He scored once with a PFF shooting grade of 60.7, the 78th-ranked striker in the MLS.

With a full offseason and a new formation implemented by Rooney, Benteke has produced to a greater level as a finisher in generating an 81.8 shooting grade. A total of 66 shot attempts places the Belgian third overall in the MLS, behind Columbus Crew’s Cucho Hernández (77) and Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar (75).

Name Club PFF shooting grade Total no. shots True shooting accuracy %
Duncan McGuire Orlando City SC 92.6 17 94%
Alan Pulido Sporting KC 92.0 34 68%
Mikael Uhre Philadelphia Union 91.0 33 76%
Gyasi Zardes Austin FC 89.8 18 50%
Jesus Ferreira FC Dallas 88.8 44 66%
Hany Mukhtar Nashville SC 88.4 75 72%
Georgios Giakoumakis Atlanta United 86.9 36 67%
Klauss St. Louis City SC 86.3 25 68%
Kacper Przybylko Chicago Fire 85.5 17 53%
Bobby Wood New England Revolution 82.6 25 68%
Brian White Vancouver Whitecaps 82.5 49 67%
Christian Benteke DC United 81.8 66 52%

Benteke’s physical attributes have led him to lead the entire league in the number of aerial duels (355) – a full 147 more than New York Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis in second. His success rate on this large volume is above the average (50.9%) among all players to have competed in at least 100 aerial duels at 53%.

This has seen Benteke serve as a difficult proposition for opposition defences to handle as a box presence, as he has registered 126 possessions within the penalty area – tied-most with LAFC’s Denis Bouanga.

Mateusz Klich, midfielder

DC United midfielder Mateusz Klich
2PB152D WASHINGTON, DC, USA – 11 MARCH 2023: DC United midfielder Mateusz Klich (43) on the attack during a MLS match between D.C United and Orlando City SC, on March 11, 2023, at Audi Field, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tony Quinn-Alamy Live News)
PFF passing grade: 86.0 (position rank: 12/145)

Klich has operated as a creative threat from both open play and set pieces for DC United, topping PFF’s cross grading among midfielders at 92.5 to pair with a passing grade of 86.0.

Arriving at Audi Field from Leeds United where he spent six seasons and became a firm fan favourite, Klich’s 58 chances created ties him for third overall with Cincinnati’s attacking midfielder Lucho Acosta and trails SJ Earthquakes’ Cristian Espinoza (63) and Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada (59).

Signed to a two-year deal, with a further option to play in 2025, the Poland international has racked up five assists and two second assists. His accuracy as a crosser has been impressive, boasting the highest true cross accuracy percentage among the Top 10 players in cross attempts at 35% from 142 events.

Name Club PFF crossing grade Total no. cross True crossing accuracy %
Mateusz Klich DC United 92.5 142 35%
Cristian Espinoza San Jose Earthquakes 89.8 230 23%
Álvaro Barreal FC Cincinnati 88.1 130 25%
Julian Gressel Vancouver Whitecaps 87.9 109 27%
Héctor Herrera Houston Dynamo 86.8 112 33%
Kai Wagner Philadelphia Union 86.7 167 26%
Brooks Lennon Atlanta United 83.4 146 29%
Lucas Zelarayán Columbus Crew 81 113 25%
Nicolás Lodeiro Seattle Sounders 79.2 147 23%
Carles Gil New England Revolution 77.3 115 19%

Klich ranks third at his position for the number of line-breaking pass attempts through the defensive line (34), marginally behind Houston’s Adalberto Carrasquilla (39) and LA Galaxy’s Riqui Puig (38).

Of his 61 through ball pass attempts, second-most behind Puig (66), Klich has completed 52% to a teammate. This is above the average of 49.7% among the 20 midfielders with the most attempts of this pass type, and higher than Puig’s 50%.

Lewis O’Brien, midfielder

PFF passing grade: 75.3 (44/145)

One of 21 signings made in last summer’s transfer window by newly-promoted Nottingham Forest, O’Brien was a starter under Steve Cooper until around October and was further hindered for game time with the arrivals of Danilo, Jonjo Shelvey and Gustavo Scarpa in January due to the Premier League’s 25-man squad registration rules.

DC United were the beneficiaries of a paperwork mishap in January that saw a loan move for O’Brien to Blackburn Rovers in the Championship fall through, alerting Rooney to his availability.

He has been ever-present in midfield alongside Chris Durkin or captain Russell Canouse, starting in all 15 of his appearances and playing 1,463 minutes.

In that time he brought improved quality as a passer to Rooney’s midfield, garnering a higher grade than Durkin (59.5) and Canouse (66.7). O’Brien has also displayed himself as a dependable all-round player at the position with grades as a ball carrier of 71.3 and in 50-50 duels at 82.1.

His loan will expire on Jul.16, a deal DC reportedly wished to extend, but the allure of interest from a host of Championship clubs and a few in the Premier League is set to see O’Brien return to England later this week.

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