Rooney tries to escape brother's shadow
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As John Rooney walks out onto the beach by his hotel, his sunburned neck is already redder than a Manchester United jersey, which can happen when an Englishman comes to Florida to escape the shadow of his famous brother.
A newcomer to the United States, Rooney took part in a five-day Major League Soccer Combine that concluded Tuesday. He has signed a contract with the league and hopes to be taken in the first round of the SuperDraft on Thursday.
Rooney's oldest brother, Wayne, is the star striker for Man United, a hero and villain who in recent months has been lambasted by the British media, jeered by fans and burned in effigy. John is a 20-year-old midfielder trying to carve out a career, and after playing in the lower leagues back home, he decided to come to the United States.
"I've watched the MLS for a few years and enjoyed it," John says in his thick Liverpool accent. "So I thought it would be a good move."
Rooney sits at an oceanfront picnic table, 20 miles up the coast from Miami Beach, where a quartet of Liverpudlians known as the Beatles famously cavorted in the ocean 47 years ago this winter.
There's no Rooneymania in Florida. While John has done some interviews, he says he doesn't get asked for autographs or encounter many soccer fans away from the pitch.
The spotlight is much more intense back home for his brother, who was voted England's player of the year last April, then made headlines with a lackluster World Cup, a contract dispute and allegations he cheated on his pregnant wife with a prostitute.
No wonder John finds a Florida getaway appealing.
He prefers not to discuss his brother's travails of recent months. Regarding the World Cup, Rooney says only that "it was a tough time. We don't really talk about much football. We'd rather stay away from it, and talk about normal stuff."
The MLS is aware of Rooney's desire to make a name for himself. His agent approached the league about the possibility of Rooney coming to the United States, and he made his first trip over last summer, when he trained with the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.
Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice president for player relations and competition, says the league's goal is for Rooney to have a long, successful U.S. career.
"It's a great place for him to come and develop," Durbin says. "Obviously having a brother as high-profile as Wayne Rooney is going to make his experience in England different than for other players, and I think this is a great place for him to be."
In past years Rooney would not have been permitted to participate in the combine, but the MLS expanded eligibility to include international players who have not attended a U.S. college. Rooney was one of six players in that category at the combine.
He scored a goal in one of his three games and says he found the style and level of play similar to the English leagues in which he played.
"I've really enjoyed it," Rooney says. "And it's better than being in the snow."
He doesn't know where he's bound — the draft will determine that — and professes no preference.
"I'd be happy to go to any team," he says. "Whichever coach picks me in the draft, I'd be happy to go out and show him he made the right decision."
At 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds, Rooney is a little shorter and lighter than his brother and plays a different position — he's a midfielder.
"I play a different style of play from him," John says. "It's good to have someone like that as your brother to look up to. But when I'm out there, it's my own game."
Rooney says he keeps in touch with his family back home mostly with text messages. He reports on the weather ("awesome"), likes the food ("lovely") and enjoyed a tour of the Everglades, saying he never saw a place so flat.
As for Americans: "They have a great, great laugh. Everyone here is a good lad."
And if many of them have never heard of Wayne Rooney? That's OK, too.