With 15 seasons in the books, MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We continue our "What Ever Happened To..." series with former MLS All-Star Jim Rooney.
Where He Was Then
Quintessentially New York, Rooney was no nonsense – and virtually no-name when he debuted with the MetroStars in 1998. The former A-Leaguer made fans scan their programs as he produced eight goals and five assists in 23 starts before joining Miami the following year. In 2001, he captained the Fusion to a 16-5-5 record, bagging six goals, nine assists and an All-Star nod before spending one final season with New England.
Where He Is Now
When Rooney looks back on the Supporters’ Shield-winning Miami Fusion of 2001, he certainly notes the array of talent on the team – from a young Pablo Mastroeni to Diego Serna, Preki and league MVP Alex Pineda Chacón. But for Rooney, there was another unexpected source of the Fusion’s success.
“Our reserve players,” the former midfielder recently told MLSsoccer.com. “Guys like Kyle Beckerman and Jeff Bilyk and Lazo Alavanja. It was so hard to break into our lineup, but they never complained – they just worked, and they pushed the rest of us and kept us really sharp.”
It makes perfect sense that Rooney remembers the understudies from that season. He’s a blue-collar guy who battled his way through every level of US soccer. After a falling out with his coach at Fordham University in the late 1980s, Rooney left school and worked construction for several years, playing in the rough-and-tumble men’s leagues in New York City.
[inline_node:329781]Four years later, he returned to college, enrolling at the CW Post Campus of Long Island University and setting the Pioneers’ single-season scoring record with 21 goals (a mark which still stands).
He signed with the Long Island Rough Riders in 1994, and in a 1997 US Open Cup game against New England, he scored two goals and assisted on the winner as Long Island rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the MLS side 4-3.
“That kind of brought my name back into the light,” he recalled.
The following year, Rough Riders coach Alfonso Mondelo took over the MetroStars head-coach job and brought Rooney up to the top flight.
“He gave me the opportunity,” Rooney said. “All players, they’re just looking for an opportunity, and I think I made the most of it that year.”
Indeed he did, yet new MetroStars coach Bora Milutinovic waived Rooney in 1999. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: New York went on to the worst record in franchise history while Rooney started scaling the heights in Miami.
South Florida is the place where Rooney, now 42, has found his new niche. He was hired early last month as an assistant coach for the newly rebranded Fort Lauderdale Strikers (formerly Miami FC), who will compete in the North American Soccer League in 2011. His path to that position started during his playing days.
“I always thought of myself as a student of the game,” he said. “And I always wanted to get into coaching. I probably was a bit of a pain in the a-- to some of my coaches, always asking for videos to watch games. Back then it was all videotapes.”
After leaving the Revolution in 2002, Rooney took a one-year hiatus from soccer to help his family tend to his brother Phillip, a master carpenter for the City of New York who’d been a first responder to the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequently developed a rare form of leukemia.
(Phillip, who logged more than 200 hours at Ground Zero, passed away in March 2007, one of more than 380 first responders who’ve died since the 9/11 attacks.)
In 2004, while still helping to care for his brother, Rooney rejoined the Long Island Rough Riders, the team that launched his pro career a decade earlier. He made nine appearances for the team in the USL Second Division, then hung up his boots after the season.
[inline_node:329765]Returning to Florida, where he’d kept a house since his days with the Fusion, Rooney took a job with the IMG Academies in Bradenton, settling his wife and kids in Boca Raton.
He coached the IMG Academy U-16 team for the next three years. One of his charges was Chivas USA defender Zarek Valentin, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Fort Lauderdale coach Daryl Shore approached Rooney late last year. One of the Strikers’ team-building methods is to fine any player whose cell phone goes off in the locker room during training sessions.
“It’s a mechanism we use to encourage guys to get to know their teammates,” Rooney said.
According to Rooney, that kind of team-bonding was crucial to the success of the Fusion in 2001, part of the ethos he hopes to bring to the Strikers.
“We all got along,” he remembered of that Miami team. “Even on the road, we all went out together, as a group. It really was unique.”
What They Said
“Jim Rooney was the quintessential New York, no-nonsense player and person. He didn’t suffer fools and you always wanted him on your side, in a game or a fight. He was also the only teammate ever to use higher SPF sunscreen than me, which is pretty incredible.”
– Alexi Lalas, MetroStars teammate in 1998