This week in Seattle, Wayne Rooney is playing the role of global ambassador as well. His Red Devils take on Club America this Friday night at CenturyLink Field in the grandiosely-named International Champions Cup.

Share story

English soccer star Wayne Rooney’s career always seemed destined for one of two extremes: the savior of a nation or the pariah flameout.

Rooney the player has always been combustible — if less so in recent years — a mischievous grin contorting into a snarl in a snap. Rooney the symbol has always been powerful, the boy prophet upon whose shoulders England heaped its hefty emotional baggage.

In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Nike featured Rooney in one of its “Write the Future” ads. Set a few hypothetical years down the road, Rooney sports a beer belly and an unkempt beard. He lives in a trailer park and is haunted by a misplaced pass on the world stage.

Glory or infamy — one or the other.

Maybe that’s why it’s such a pleasant-if-underwhelming surprise to experience Rooney the elder statesman. Rooney is still just 29. But the newly installed captain of the English national team has been a professional for more than 12 years, a Manchester United player for more than a decade.

This week in Seattle, Rooney is playing the role of global ambassador as well. His Red Devils take on Club America this Friday night at CenturyLink Field in the grandiosely-named International Champions Cup.

And when asked how he’s changed as a player since he made his debut for boyhood club Everton in the winter of 2003, Rooney pauses, considers.

“You’re always adapting tactically,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “You read the game better. I think that’s one of my qualities. … That’s something that’s changed for me.”

Rooney has netted 170 English Premier League goals for United in more than 300 league appearances. He’s won five EPL titles and a European Champions League.

He’s spent a long time, in other words, in the pressure cooker of the global game. His manager, Louis van Gaal, lifted the lid and offered a glimpse inside during a Wednesday news conference in Bellevue.

“In top sport, no position is secure. Even my position is not secure — as you know,” the stoic Dutch tactician said, smiling wide.

Rooney isn’t going anywhere any time soon, though he did gamely answer the inevitable would-you-ever-consider-MLS question.

“I’m obviously concentrating on Manchester United,” Rooney said, talking highly of the league’s increased quality while cautiously adding that he has a few more years on his contract. “When that time comes, that’ll be something I’d think about. (I’ll) sit down with my wife and children and decide if it would be right for me.”

Time was, the main draw of coming to MLS was to gain a foothold in the forever-emerging U.S. soccer market. But these days, as evidenced by the packed stadiums to see European teams play glorified exhibition matches, players can still accomplish that from abroad.

“I would say the real kind of increase was two World Cups ago,” said Gareth Etchelles, the owner of the Atlantic Crossing, the Roosevelt-based home of the local Man U fan club. “That’s when we really started to see it. … We definitely see more fans showing up for EPL games.”

When the bar first opened 10 years ago, Etchelles said, there would be days where it couldn’t even afford to open early for EPL games because the crowds were so thin. Now, the Atlantic Crossing opens for lunch on weekdays mainly to service the fans coming in for Champions League matches.

Etchelles has a unique perspective on the league’s global growth, a Man United lifer who grew up in Cambridge before moving to the U.S. when he was 21.

So, too, does Rooney, who grew up less than four miles from Everton’s Goodison Park. When he was signed by Everton’s youth team in 1996, the then-provincial Premier League was just four years into its transformative, television-money-fueled new age.

“When you’re first getting into the first team, it’s not something you think about,” Rooney said of appreciating the length of United’s reach. “You’re just trying to break into the team.

“The older you get, the more you start to think about it, and realize how big football is. Coming to these tours, you get to see it firsthand and realize the passion and how much football can bring people together.”