What transpired over the subsequent two hours in misty conditions rekindled some of the magic that Rooney injected as a striker in 2018 and 2019. Staring at another defeat, United not only tied the score in the waning moments but won it in the last seconds of stoppage time, 2-1.
Chris Durkin scored the equalizer on a one-timer from the heart of the penalty area, then Taxi Fountas volleyed in from 12 yards, triggering bedlam among the 15,805 at Buzzard Point.
“The season has to start now,” said Rooney, who was hired three weeks ago but, until he received his work visa late last week, was limited to a consulting role. “Character is a big word I have used over the last couple of weeks with the team. We need to be a team that shows a lot of character and fight and togetherness.”
After falling behind early, United (6-12-3) showed those qualities in a stirring second half and won for just the second time since early May.
“That’s exactly what we needed,” defender Brendan Hines-Ike said. “We need to know we can win games. You lose so many games, you forget what it’s like to win.”
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United’s persistence finally paid off in staggering fashion. As the first minute of stoppage time elapsed, substitute Ola Kamara snapped a left-sided cross to Durkin for a rising effort and his first goal of the year.
“When we got the goal,” Durkin said, “we were still pushing and still wanting to score another goal.”
Martín Rodríguez, a substitute, served a long ball to Kimarni Smith, a sub. Smith volleyed the ball from the left side into the center of the box, where Fountas one-timed it into the right corner for his team-best 11th goal. Almost four weeks ago, Fountas recorded a hat trick in Orlando.
“I am proud the guys didn’t settle for a tie,” captain Steven Birnbaum said.
As a player, Rooney bedeviled Orlando (8-9-6) with goals, including a 60-yarder, and a remarkable tackle-assist sequence that cemented his place in United history. As a coach, with United undergoing roster changes and the team at the bottom of the standings, his influence Sunday had limits.
What he has instilled, the players said, is belief and the freedom to express themselves.
“A big thing which I’ve seen in my research on the team is when a player makes a mistake, they suffer and really found it difficult to come back from that,” Rooney said. “I understand players will make mistakes — no problem. I want them to try things. I want them to risk the ball in the right areas. And if they make a mistake and give the ball away, try it again. That’s part of the game. Giving the players that freedom of mind and to be able to do that is starting to make a difference.”
It did not start well. Orlando went ahead in the ninth minute, the fifth time in seven matches United had conceded a goal in the opening 15 minutes.
After a D.C. giveaway in midfield, Alexandre Pato slipped the ball ahead to Júnior Urso in stride for a one-timer from the top corner of the box. With goalkeeper Rafael Romo well off his line, Urso delicately chipped it into the far side.
In the 28th minute, Romo was caught surging forward on a long ball and, amid a mad scramble by his defenders to cover an open net, Pato missed high. Ten minutes later, Orlando’s Benji Michel missed an open net.
The match began to swing with the entrance at halftime of Rodríguez, a Chilean winger who debuted the previous weekend. Fountas had a glorious chance to equalize in the 61st minute, but Pedro Gallese made a sensational leg save.
United buzzed with energy and opportunity, culminating with the two late strikes.
“Now it’s about consistency,” Hines-Ike said. “Can D.C. United put together a string of results? Or does it go back to the same old same old the last few months? We can’t accept that anymore.”
Here’s what else to know about United’s victory:
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Romo made his eighth consecutive start and Jon Kempin was the usual backup, but with the acquisition of David Ochoa from Real Salt Lake last week, the pecking order is about to change.
Ochoa, 21, is scheduled to travel to Charlotte on Wednesday and seems almost certain to start. In that case, Romo would drop to No. 2 on the depth chart.
Bill Hamid, the longtime starter who is in the final year of his contract, continues to rehabilitate a hand injury that required surgery June 30. The initial timetable for his return was two to three months.
Estrada left off roster again
Forward Michael Estrada was a healthy scratch for the second straight game, a sign United probably is planning to end his season-long loan from Mexican club Toluca soon. The Ecuadoran national team member has four goals and four assists in 16 league matches (11 starts) but hasn’t scored since May 21.
United has an option to purchase his contract after this season for $5 million. By returning him to Toluca, the club would clear senior roster space, including an international slot. …
Forward Nigel Robertha, who has one goal and three assists in 14 matches (five starts), also was scratched. He is under contract through 2023. …
Midfielders Russell Canouse (leg injury) and Ted Ku-DiPietro (non-covid illness recovery) were unavailable. Midfielder Victor Palsson, acquired from German club Schalke last week, is awaiting a work visa. …
Rooney’s debut wasn’t the only one Sunday. Ravel Morrison, a well-traveled attacking midfielder who played for Rooney at Derby County, logged 90 minutes.
Starting at the six-minute mark, a minute of applause was conducted in memory of Len Oliver, a National Soccer Hall of Famer and longtime figure in D.C.-area soccer who died July 24. He was 88. Family members in attendance wore jerseys with No. 6, Oliver’s number as a player.