MIAMI — Few English national team players will be feeling the heat as much as Wayne Rooney on the team's pre-World Cup stop in Miami.
The closer the World Cup gets, the greater the pressure is on the striker to produce the kind of performances for England that earned him the most lucrative contract in Manchester United history last season.
Rooney, 28, collects more than $20 million a year at the club owned by the Glazer family which owns the Bucs. The striker has 38 goals in 89 England appearances since bursting onto the scene as a teenager. But he has gone four international matches without scoring.
No wonder the country is so concerned about its star striker's struggles just two weeks before England opens its World Cup campaign in Brazil against Italy. Coach Roy Hodgson, though, is trying to ensure Rooney is not burdened by the expectations in a country which has not won the World Cup since 1966 — or even reached the semifinals in 24 years.
"I think it's a bit sad that the country is so Wayne Rooney-obsessed," Hodgson said ahead of the team's arrival Sunday in Miami for two World Cup warm-up matches. "I don't think Wayne sets himself up to be anything other than a very important member of the squad who tries his best at all times."
Is his best enough these days? Rooney should be at his peak, but some pundits are already questioning whether Hodgson should cast aside the country's most recognizable player. Paul Scholes, Rooney's former teammate for England and Man U, issued a plea to Hodgson through a blog to consider putting the forward on the bench against Italy if his "form doesn't get up to scratch."
While Rooney is likely to start at one of the two games in Miami's Sun Life Stadium — at 4:45 p.m. Saturday against Honduras rather than 3 p.m. Wednesday against Ecuador — his starting spot in Brazil no longer seems so certain. Hodgson didn't name Rooney as one of his guaranteed picks for the opener in Manaus.
Incredibly, in the World Cup itself, Rooney was goalless both in Germany in 2006 and four years later in South Africa — eight matches.
Rarely before, though, has Rooney's life away from the field seemed so tranquil. Whereas previously the Liverpool-born player was dogged by scandals in his private life that made front page news, Rooney now seems focused on bringing up his two children with wife Coleen.
"He's in a better frame of mind going into this tournament than he's had going into previous tournaments when he's had injuries," captain Steven Gerrard said.
But a groin injury kept Rooney out of United's last three matches of a trophyless season. Rooney's strike partner, Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, was the only forward to score in Friday's 3-0 exhibition victory over Peru.
"It is about the team and not just myself and Wazza," Sturridge said, using Rooney's nickname. "Whether we score and create goals, it is about everyone else."