MIAMI (AP) — Few England players will be feeling the heat as much as Wayne Rooney on the team's pre-World Cup stop in Miami.
The closer it gets to the World Cup, the greater the pressure 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, who collects more than $20 million a year at United, has scored 38 goals in 89 England appearances since bursting onto the scene as a teenager. But he has now gone four matches on international duty without scoring.
No wonder the country is so concerned about its star striker's struggles with just two weeks before England opens its World Cup campaign against Italy in Brazil. England 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 on 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? The 28-year-old Rooney should be at his footballing 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 United, 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 — against Honduras on Saturday rather than Ecuador on Wednesday — his starting spot on June 14 against Italy no longer seems so certain. Hodgson didn't name Rooney as one of his guaranteed picks for the Manaus game when asked about his options this weekend.
"In the back positions we have a pretty clear idea of what we want," Hodgson said. "Once you get past Steven Gerrard in midfield, there are five positions to fill. I think there are plenty of options there and we could do well with a number of those options."