DC United's Nick DeLeon hopes goal vs. Toronto FC sparks return to form from breakout rookie season

After a slow start to his 2014 campaign, D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon seems to be getting back to his old self again.

The former Louisville standout’s 54th-minute goal in United’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday was a bit of a flashback, a strike that showcased some of the flair and guile that nearly won him the MLS Rookie of the Year award in 2012. 

Some 40 yards out, DeLeon stripped TFC center back Nick Haggalund of the ball and quickly cut a path into the 18-yard box. Once there, Deleon used some crafty footwork to put Haggalund, fellow central defender Steven Caldwell and midfielder Collen Warner on the ground before curling his shot around TFC goalkeeper Joe Bendik

To an outside observer, it looked like a bit of a blur. After the match, DeLeon said it looked that way to him as well. 

“I don’t remember very much about the goal,” Deleon told MLSsoccer.com, chuckling. "I just remember being in the 18, faking a shot with my left, picking my head up and seeing an open spot. I guess I put it there. I’ve got to say, I’m a little fuzzy on the details.”

There’s no denying that DeLeon’s production has slowed since a 2012 season that saw him notch six goals – the most memorable of which sent D.C. to the Eastern Conference finals – and added a handful of assists during that campaign before struggling through an injury-plagued 2013. 

After a lively and promising preseason, Deleon again started slowly in 2014. But he has more recently been rapidly rounding into form, notching goals in two of United’s past three matches and showing flashes of the creativity and speed that made him a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

“It’s been encouraging that I can see progress in every game,” Deleon said. “I’ve been getting chances but haven’t been putting them away. I’ve been fortunate enough recently to get a couple of goals, so I can ride that now and keep moving forward.”

Still, there’s work to be done.

United head coach Ben Olsen was quick to point that out recently when asked about his midfielder’s sluggish start. But he also took the opportunity to harp on one of DeLeon’s positives: his high work rate.

"I think you get a lot of hard work going forward and backwards from Nick,” Olsen said, admitting it’s fair to question his slow start. "I’d like a bit more quality in the final third. … He hasn’t been at his best. What you know you get from him, though, is the work ethic going forward going forward and tracking back. He’s such a good player in that respect, that he makes himself invaluable to this team." 

For now, DeLeon is just happy to be scoring goals again. One of the few holdovers from United’s dreadful 2013 campaign, the charismatic midfielder is basking in the positivity of 2014’s turnaround that has them alone atop the Eastern Conference.

"This season is more of a 2012 season,” DeLeon said. “Things are feeling really good, things are clicking. It’s pretty nice after what we put ourselves through last year, honestly. Everything feels like it’s going our way; we’re catching some of the breaks that we weren’t catching last year. We’re playing good soccer.

“Right now, we absolutely believe we’re No. 1."