DC's Nick DeLeon getting help from unlikely source in transition to defense

Travis Campbell recently left soccer to move back to Phoenix and go into business installing patios.

Then a week ago, he turned on the TV to watch the match of childhood friend Nick DeLeon. Only something was a little off: DeLeon was playing right back.

Campbell couldn’t resist a joking postgame message. That turned into a conversation, and that conversation snowballed into a fledgling mentorship between a duo that has always been close.

Campbell, a former Division I defender at the University of New Mexico, has followed DeLeon’s career since injuries halted his own pro hopes. And DeLeon, who moved to the back four last week due to Sean Franklin’s calf injury, welcomed the advice in his new role in the starting XI, after dropping to the subs bench as a midfielder.

“He just texted me after. ‘Ooh, right back, huh?’ That type of thing,” DeLeon said. “Since he’s been a defender his whole life, I asked him if he could watch me and critique me.... I’ve found it very, very helpful.”

As recently as last fall, Campbell was still deep into coaching as his alma mater’s director of soccer operations.

DeLeon says that wealth of knowledge is one reason this positional transition feels easier. At least compared with his first one of the season, when he moved into central midfield after spending his first four pro years mostly out wide.

“I never felt 100 percent comfortable in there,” DeLeon said of playing central mid. “In this game that we play nowadays, the outside backs get so far up the field, it is almost more of a true winger position. You fly out, you get crosses, you get shots. The only difference is you have a little bit more responsibility on the defensive end.”

DeLeon says Campbell has helped him see choices that are more productive than “just clearing the ball” and less dangerous than trying to dribble out of trouble.

“He’s just kind of told me some options, if I don’t have anybody open, what I should probably do,” DeLeon said. “As far as hoofing it into the corner for [forward] Patrick Mullins, or playing it back to [goalkeeper] Bill [Hamid] to be safe. Just little things here and there like that.”

So far it’s working. With DeLeon in his new role, United has picked up emphatic back-to-back home wins, 4-1 over Orlando last Saturday and 3-0 over Columbus on Wednesday. The latter result was United’s first shutout in eight matches.

Saturday’s match at Eastern Conference title contenders Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE in the US, TSN4, RDS2 in Canada) will likely provide more of a test for D.C., which began the weekend holding the sixth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

But even as a defender, DeLeon insists neither he nor his teammates will lose their recent attacking instincts.

“We’re not coming here to settle or sit back,” DeLeon said. “We’re coming here to get a win. It’s too close, the standings are too close, and we can’t afford to drop any points.”