What John Rooney could mean to MLS

The younger Rooney is ready to give North America his best shot

Red Bulls pick John Rooney poses with fans.

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The roll call of MLS players now boasts the following bold-faced names: Henry, Marquez — and Rooney.

Of course, that’s JOHN Rooney, not Wayne, the internationally famous Manchester United and England striker. On Thursday, the Red Bulls brought the younger Rooney to a market and a city befitting his famous name: New York.

They selected Rooney with the seventh pick of the second round (25th overall) of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. It’s not a blockbuster Designated Player pickup, but the acquisition is intriguing nonetheless.

Let’s take a closer look.


The Sinatra Situation

Picture this best-case scenario for the 20-year-old midfielder with the famous big brother:

He fits in with New York in his first season, and he does well in his moments of first-team action (while excelling on the reserve team). Then he becomes a regular starter in his second year, and a Best XI selection after his third MLS season, when fans all over the world take notice of his progress.

In other words, imagine Frank Sinatra’s famous words coming true for the young Rooney: “If I can make it there…”

Pie in the sky, you say? Well, this is the best-case scenario we’re sketching here, and history has shown it’s by no means an uncommon story in MLS. It could happen.

Now, for the worst-case scenario, aka:


The Andrew Shue Syndrome

In this version, Rooney doesn’t fit in with the team, he struggles with the reserves, fails to earn any first-team action, and the whole thing is called off after a season.

Rooney then returns to England having generated some short-term PR for the league, a la Melrose Place star Andrew Shue’s stint in the league back in 1996 (before you laugh: Shue was a quality college player at Dartmouth.)


Risk/Reward

The potential rewards for MLS that would follow from Scenario 1 are immense: With a Rooney satellite in New York, the British press will be all over MLS, tracking the player’s progress, on and off the field, probably as much as they have done with that other English midfielder in Los Angeles (you know the one: blonde hair, good-looking fella, name escapes us just now).

The exposure and publicity haul will be massive. And if Rooney does well, progresses as a player, and gains international respect, MLS gets an equal if not greater boost in credibility. The world will get a lesson in the competitive level of the league.

As for the potential risks associated with Scenario 2, well, you’d need the Hubble telescope to see them, they’re so small. No one is breaking the bank for this unproven 20-year-old, and if it doesn’t work out, hey, MLS gave a young kid a shot to develop his career—he just didn’t make it. Even that negative could produce a positive for the league in terms of credibility: As in, the level was too high for him, he couldn’t compete.


Meet John Rooney

Of course his future is unwritten, and Rooney showed flashes of promise in several phases of his game during last week’s MLS Combine, where he scored a goal with a sharp cut-back and finish inside the far post.

WATCH: John Rooney highlights

So what kind of player are the Red Bulls getting? “A player who likes getting on the ball and trying to make stuff happen,” Rooney said yesterday.

“I like to open play up and get people on the ball. I can also score goals. I got on the scoresheet [at the Combine], and I also hit the target with a few shots—some of the keepers made a few good saves.”

Rooney said his preferred position is attacking midfielder but that he can also play the holding role if asked. “I’ll play wherever the coach wants me to,” he said.

That coach, Hans Backe, offered the following assessment of Rooney’s selection by New York: “He was one of the two or three best center midfielders at the Combine, in my opinion. So I was a little bit happy and surprised that we could pick him at No. 25. He’s a box-to-box player, with a good understanding of the game. He’s hardworking, and an excellent passer of the ball.”

Rooney cut his teeth in the Everton youth system before signing with English League Two side Macclesfield Town at age 17. He made 40 appearances with Macclesfield in three years, but turned down a recent contract renewal offer from the club to try his luck in the U.S.

He went on training stints with both Portland and Seattle last summer, and enjoyed the experience enough to throw in his lot entirely with Major League Soccer.

“There were [other] teams looking at me in England,” Rooney said yesterday. “It was just the right time to come over here.”

Of the prospect of playing with the Red Bulls’ famous designated players, Rooney said, “I’m so pleased to be joining them. I’m looking forward to getting on the training pitch with the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez.”

Following his selection at the draft, Rooney looked every bit the 20-year-old kid facing a media storm in a foreign country.

Asked if he’d ever visited New York, his answer was no, but “everyone knows it’s an unbelievable city, so I just can't wait to experience it.”

He was humble, wide-eyed, and just trying to weather the press gauntlet. One phrase that kept recurring was, “I can’t wait to get started.”

Clearly, he’s a young man who prefers to let his play do the talking. Soon, it will do just that—and speak volumes about the 25th pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.