IRENE, South Africa – To beat England, the United States has to stop a player who in real life had the kind of season usually seen only in video games.
Wayne Rooney scored five goals this season against Jozy Altidore’s Hull, and three against Jonathan Spector’s West Ham. He had two against Clint Dempsey’s Fulham, and one each against Marcus Hahnemann’s Wolverhampton and Brad Guzan’s Aston Villa.
“To be honest, we’re under no illusions. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat a player like him, or to even match a player like him,” American defender Jay DeMerit said Tuesday.
Rooney, the 24-year-old star of Manchester United and England’s national team, was a whirlwind this season. His 26 Premier League goals were second behind Didier Drogba’s 29. He had five more in the European Champions League and two in the League Cup.
On Jan. 23 alone, he had four goals against Hull. He has long been a star, but never before had he put together a season like this.
“He’s revered. People think of him as a sporting god, and they should,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “He’s amazing, quite simply, and he does all the things that a striker needs to do, and he does them great. And that’s why he’s considered the best one or two players in the world.”
Howard kept Rooney from scoring in two games this season, helping Everton gain a league split with Manchester United. He hasn’t allowed a goal to Rooney in four club and two national team matches, although Everton went 1-2-1 and the U.S. 0-2.
A 5-foot-10 muscle-bound dynamo of strength and pace, Rooney has 25 goals in 60 games for England. He’s known for his temper – he was ejected for stomping on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin as England lost to Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals.
But he hasn’t been tossed since United lost at Fulham in March 2009, when he was given his second yellow card of the match for throwing a ball.
“Maturity is one of the final parts of a player’s development,” United manager Alex Ferguson said. “You can’t have it at 16. You can’t have it at 18. You can’t have it at 21. You have to wait until the mid-20s before they get that authority, timing and maturity that those qualities bring. And I think what we’re seeing with Wayne is quite interesting.”
Still, Rooney received a yellow card Monday as England beat the local Platinum Stars 3-0 in an exhibition. Referee Jeff Selogilwe claimed Rooney swore at him.
“He is a good player when you see him on the TV, but when you see him on the pitch, he just keeps on insulting the referees,” Selogilwe said. “If he insults a referee like me, then he will use that vulgar language to other referees as well.”
American players are concerned about limiting Rooney’s scoring, not his fiery nature. Still, they wouldn’t mind if Brazilian referee Carlos Simon disciplined him. Simon issued five yellow cards during Italy’s 2-0 victory over Ghana in the first round of the 2006 World Cup, eight more in Spain’s 3-1 win over Tunisia, and four yellows and a red as Germany beat Sweden 2-0.
“Ultimately you try to make his day difficult,” DeMerit said of Rooney. “If you start to make those types of personalities have a difficult day, then maybe those types of things come out.”