Rooney, though, is also weighing job interest from a Premier League club, that person said.
United officials declined to comment. Paul Stretford, Rooney’s agent, did not reply to a message seeking comment. Those who confirmed the talks spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could freely discuss the matter.
The Daily Mail was first to report Rooney’s interest in guiding United, which fired second-year coach Hernán Losada six games into this season. Ashton, a longtime assistant, was slated to oversee the team for the rest of the year.
However, United (5-10-2) has not improved, and Friday’s 7-0 away defeat to the Philadelphia Union tied the MLS record for largest scoring margin. Since the coaching change, United is 3-6-2 and conceded 32 goals in dropping to 26th among 28 teams in the overall standings.
United has not qualified for the playoffs since Rooney’s second season in MLS. He had planned to play in Washington at least one more season, but because his family wasn’t comfortable living abroad, he and the club mutually agreed to part ways.
Rooney returned to England and joined second-flight Derby County as a player and assistant coach. When Phillip Cocu was fired in fall 2020, Rooney and three others shared duties until Rooney was named permanent head coach. He soon retired as a player, finishing as the highest scorer in English national team history.
The Rams narrowly avoided relegation, but this past season, Rooney faced huge challenges. They were declared insolvent, resulting in a 12-point deduction in the standings. Later, they forfeited nine points because of financial violations.
Derby finished second to last and was relegated to League One, prompting Rooney, 36, to step down last month. Since then, he has been exploring coaching opportunities in Europe and spoken multiple times to United co-chairman Jason Levien, two people said.
Despite ending his D.C. playing career earlier than expected, Rooney has remained close with United officials and players. He and captain Steven Birnbaum — as well as their spouses — are good friends, and the four got together in December in England.
Furthermore, club management has at times reached out to Rooney for advice on player targets in Europe, one person said.
One such player, that person said, was Welsh forward Tom Lawrence, who played with, and for, Rooney at Derby. United expressed interest in signing him this summer before he joined Glasgow Rangers.
During Rooney’s playing days in MLS, United officials and players marveled at not only his technical ability but his soccer mind and ability to analyze matches. He was the team captain, and many thought he would become a coach before long.
Returning to Washington, though, would raise questions about his family’s happiness, and by extension, his happiness. He and his wife, Coleen, have four children, ranging in age from 4 to 12.
Until moving to the D.C. area, the family had never lived outside the Liverpool-Manchester area. Rooney’s wife reportedly was miserable living abroad.
Before appointing anyone, United would have to comply with MLS’s diversity hiring policy, which requires at least two non-White candidates among the finalists for technical staff positions. No other names have surfaced publicly.
The league, though, does grant waivers under “extenuating circumstances.”
United did not have to follow league policy when Ashton replaced Losada because it was filling the job on short notice and on an interim basis.
Hiring Rooney would help shift the focus from another losing season. In his time as a D.C. striker, Rooney won over supporters with not only his scoring exploits but his work ethic, leadership traits and interaction with the public.
His arrival in Washington coincided with Audi Field’s opening in July 2018 and his attacking partnership with Luciano Acosta (now with Cincinnati) electrified crowds and brought worldwide attention to a club that had lost relevance locally and nationally.
In 2018, he made one of the greatest plays in club history, racing back to midfield to deny a scoring opportunity while United’s goalkeeper was in the attacking end, then launching a long ball to Acosta for a stoppage-time game-winner.
One person familiar with the negotiations said the former English national team star believes he can win in Washington. Despite the team’s poor record, Greek attacker Taxi Fountas is one of the league’s top newcomers, Chilean attacker Martín Rodríguez will debut soon, and the club says it plans to sign at least two others before the summer transfer window closes Aug. 4. United has two designated player slots available.