DeLeon, Cruz use college ties to ingite United's charge

Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz

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WASHINGTON — It may seem like an eternity ago, Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz were actually teammates long before they suited up for D.C. United.

In fact, they played together at UNLV in 2008, before each carved his own unique path to the nation’s capital and before they schemed together to create a goal in D.C.’s 4-1 romp over FC Dallas on March 30.

WATCH: Cruz finishes off DeLeon cross

DeLeon sprinted down the left flank and through the Dallas defense to set up the play, and there was Cruz, open in the box to pound home a 65th-minute goal that handed United a much-needed first win of the young season.

“I have played with [DeLeon] for a long time now and after scoring the goal it was kind of surreal,” Cruz said after the match. “It was something we had been waiting for a long time. It was a great service, and I had to do the rest.”

Cruz left UNLV after the 2008 season and was drafted by the Houston Dynamo, where he played until a trade to D.C. this past offseason. DeLeon stayed another season at UNLV and eventually transferred to Louisville before he was drafted this year by the Black and Red.

“On the field our relationship is great,” DeLeon said. “Off the field, he is a good mentor and a good leader for me. That’s how it’s always been since college. I was so happy to hear that he was coming here. That made a world of a difference.”

For the past two seasons, United supporters have become accustomed to seeing Andy Najar and Chris Pontius roam the flanks of the midfield at RFK Stadium. But with Najar recently away on international duty, and Pontius struggling to produce after coming back from a broken leg, the opportunity was there for Cruz and DeLeon to earn a place in the squad.

And earn a spot they did. DeLeon, who scored his first professional goal against the LA Galaxy in the second game of the season, scored the winner against Dallas by chesting down a Maicon Santos pass, and roofing a shot over Kevin Hartman like a seasoned professional.

Last Saturday against the Seattle Sounders, D.C. head coach Ben Olsen again chose to pair Cruz and DeLeon together, sitting Pontius on the bench while Najar was given a rest following his return from the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. It remains to be seen whether Cruz and DeLeon will continue to start for Olsen, but the manager made it clear that he was pleased to have this sort of selection issue.

“They are some tough decisions ahead of me, but they are all good decisions to have as a coach,” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com. “[Najar] and Pontius are very good wide midfielders, but [Cruz] and [DeLeon] are very good as well. It’s a healthy competition going on right there.”