Whitecaps looking to spoil Wayne Rooney’s MLS debut


English soccer star Wayne Rooney. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

VANCOUVER – While most eyes in the soccer world will be fixated on Moscow for Sunday’s World Cup final between France and Croatia, a high profile domestic league match is sure to gather plenty of attention in North America.

On Saturday, the Whitecaps face a D.C. United team featuring a couple of players who have previously worn a Vancouver uniform, while another is a global star who most fans have only ever watched on television.

Normally, D.C. goalkeeper David Ousted’s first game against his former club would be among the top story lines. Not this time, though, as former England international and Manchester United great Wayne Rooney is set to make his Major League Soccer debut against the Whitecaps at D.C.’s brand new Audi Field.

“Last Saturday, it was Bastian Schweinsteiger [with the Chicago Fire]. It’s brilliant to go up against these players,” said Whitecaps midfielder Jordan Mutch, fresh off scoring his first MLS goal last weekend. “Wayne Rooney is a legend … probably one of the best ever to play for England.”

Mutch and Whitecaps forward Kei Kamara are just a handful of MLS players who have been on the same pitch as Rooney, having played against him during their time in England.

“I made my debut at Old Trafford for Birmingham City,” recalled Mutch, who played his first Premier League match against Rooney on January 22, 2011. “He was frightening then. It was an eye-opener. It’s always good to play these players.”

“He’s going to know MLS is not a retirement league,” Kamara added. “He’s a competitor. It’s great for D.C. opening a beautiful stadium. It’s going to be history, but it’s all about us. It’s not about Rooney or D.C.”

Vancouver coach Carl Robinson knows Rooney’s future in North America could be just as successful as fellow England great David Beckham, who led L.A. Galaxy to the MLS Cup in 2011.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement by D.C. United to get him,” Robinson conceded. “He’s a proper professional and he will demand the best. He will drag that team up from the foot of the table all the way into the playoffs because he’s a top, top player.”

Robinson also knows that in order for his club to get back above the .500 mark they will have to worry about more than just Rooney. One-time Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks currently leads D.C. in goals (eight) and shot attempts (34), while Ousted, who appeared in a franchise-record 142 MLS regular season fixtures for the Whitecaps, has played in 11 of 14 matches for his new club this season.

“David’s gone to D.C. and had a good ol’ fight with [fellow goalkeeper] Steve Clark there between the goal posts,” Robinson offered. “It’s a different club with a different environment. I’m sure him and his family are very happy, but my players here love scoring goals. You saw that last Saturday, and there it will be no different.”

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Saturday marks the beginning of a three-match road stretch for the Whitecaps. Following the trip to D.C., Vancouver will be in Montreal on July 18 to face the Impact in the Canadian Club Championship, before heading to Seattle to face the Sounders in MLS action on July 21.

Looking to build off a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Fire last Saturday at B.C. Place, the Whitecaps have to feel good about themselves entering Saturday’s contest against a D.C. side that sits in the basement of the Eastern Conference standings (2-7-5).

“It was a good performance all-around [against Chicago],” said Kamara, who leads Vancouver with eight goals this season. “Hopefully we keep building from games like that.”

Kamara has been a huge factor as to why the Caps are at 7-7-5 and back above the playoff line in the Western Conference. He has scored in five of the seven victories, and while he knows scoring goals is important, improving defensively is a top priority for the team going into the second half of the MLS campaign.

“Everyone has seen it. We don’t have to tell ourselves what we can do,” Kamara said. “We can score goals, but we have to defend together. We can play really well and get all those goals, but if we don’t defend well together, we can’t get those three points.”

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Defender Kendal Waston, who missed the Chicago game with a groin strain, was home in Costa Rica earlier this week dealing with some work VISA matters. Robinson said if he Waston isn’t available on Saturday, he will likely return next Wednesday in Montreal when the Whitecaps take on the Impact in the opening leg of the Canadian Club Championship semifinals.

Goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic has been in full training all week as he continues to recover from a leg injury suffered in practice in early May. The New Zealand international boasts a 4-5-1 record in 10 starts this season. If he is not ready to return, backup Brian Rowe would likely make his 10th straight start on Saturday.

This will be just the Whitecaps fourth trip to the U.S. capital. They’ve scored just one goal in their previous three road matches against D.C. United, as Camilo converted from the penalty spot in a 1-0 win on June 29, 2013. Vancouver suffered a 4-0 loss in their last road match against D.C. on April 9, 2016.

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