After taking over D.C. United as head coach, Wayne Rooney vowed to highlight the homegrown talent on the roster. He promised to rejuvenate the squad, and take into consideration the academy talent that long formed part of the D.C. United organization.
On Saturday night, Rooney followed through. The head coach started 15-year-old defender Matai Akinmboni against Real Salt Lake.
“I think I’m a man of my word,” Rooney grinned after the match. “What I said to the players when I came in was ‘If you perform well in training, you’ll get your chance to play.’ He [Matai] has been excellent in training and he deserved to come in.”
His time on the pitch saw Akinmboni become the third-youngest player in league history to make his MLS debut at 15 years old, and the fourth player to start a match before his 16th birthday to join Freddy Adu, Alphonso Davies and Obed Vargas on the list. And it’s only the start.
“He’s 15 and I have to protect him. But I just felt he was ready to come in and play. Is he going to play every game? Of course not. He’s still a very young boy. But for him and for us to see him playing in an away game in difficult circumstances and performing the way he did as a 15-year-old — he’s got a very bright future,” added Rooney.
“I got everything I wanted from the 45 minutes that he played tonight that I wanted to see. I’ll keep trying to develop him as a player and hopefully be seeing more of him in this season and for years to come.”
His start comes just weeks after the defender signed an official contract with the club on August 31, but his standout performances in training and with USL Championship side Loudon United propelled him towards a place on Rooney’s squad.
But the night wasn’t all celebratory.
D.C. United’s 0-0 draw leaves the club in last place of the Eastern Conference table, and officially rules them of contention for the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs. With four games left to be played before the end of the season, Rooney maintained he expects players to give it their all on the pitch.