WASHINGTON – Nick DeLeon was one of two D.C. United starters who stayed late after training Wednesday afternoon and worked on a finishing drill underneath the early September sun.
He and Andy Najar alternated striking balls at goalkeepers Joe Willis and Andrew Dykstra and afterward, DeLeon took some time to wind down alone on the bleachers following an exhausting session.
“I think it was the shooting that overdid it. But, whatever,” the 22-year-old rookie said nonchalantly.
Tired now, perhaps. But unlike a fair amount of rookies who fade as the season enters the fall months, DeLeon is rapidly gaining momentum and becoming an indispensable asset for D.C.
The outside midfielder from the University of Louisville has played all 90 minutes in five of United’s previous six games, with the lone exception being the match he missed against Montreal after contracting a virus.
In that span, DeLeon has two goals and an assist and regained the form that wowed onlookers in the early portion of the season. Against New York, DeLeon scored D.C.’s first goal after burying a service from captain Dwayne De Rosario, then returned the favor by lobbing a ball down the middle that De Rosario headed in for his 100th career regular-season MLS strike.
Prior to that, he scored a first-half equalizer on the road in an eventual loss to Kansas City. And against Columbus the game before that, he made an electrifying run down the right side that led to D.C.’s only goal in a 1-0 victory at RFK Stadium.
“It’s getting there. It’s getting to where I want it to be. I’m starting to play better, a lot more fluid. [The] touch is starting to come back. It’s a reflection of the team as well, because we’re playing really well as a team right now,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon, admittedly, hit the rookie wall in late May. He missed four consecutive matches with a hamstring injury and was unable to regain his form as June and July rolled on.
August, however, was different. The winger’s minutes-per-game increased significantly and he has vaulted himself back into Rookie of the Year discussions.
The aforementioned goal against Kansas City was his first since April 22nd, but even with the nine-match dry spell, the Phoenix, Ariz. native has equaled the club's rookie record for goals in a season with five. He’s also assisted four.
United midfielder Perry Kitchen knows what DeLeon was going through in the summer months because, well, he went through it last year. Like DeLeon, Kitchen finished strong and led D.C. in minutes played in 2011, proving he could successfully adjust to the longer MLS slate.
“First off, I think he’s had a great year,” Kitchen said of DeLeon. “It’s tough for rookies. The season is three times as long, but I think he’s done great. I think he did hit a little bit of a wall, but he bounced back quick. I think he’s been a big part of our team this year and we have to hope he continues to keep doing what he does because it’s really helping us out.”
With all of DeLeon’s recent success, the seventh overall pick in the 2012 SuperDraft isn’t necessarily satisfied with his overall performance. Which, if anything, is only encouraging for United as they attempt to climb back into the playoff picture after dropping to sixth in the Eastern Conference last weekend.
“Nah. I feel like I can do more,” DeLeon said when asked if he’s surprised by his first-year success. “I’m still working my way up.”