When they parted ways three years ago, Danny Cruz and Nick DeLeon weren’t sure if they’d ever play together again.
The pair had developed chemistry playing in the Olympic Development Program together in Arizona — DeLeon at left back, Cruz in front of him in the midfield — and their friendship grew when both went on to play at UNLV.
But in 2009, Cruz, then a sophomore, turned pro and was drafted by the Houston Dynamo. While he slowly worked his way up the ladder in Houston and eventually played in MLS Cup 2011, DeLeon, by now an attacking midfielder, transferred to Louisville, guided the Cardinals to the 2010 College Cup final and solidified his professional prospects.
WATCH: DeLeon feeds Cruz for tap-in
Though they still spoke weekly and Cruz texted a congratulations when D.C. United drafted DeLeon with the seventh overall pick of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, neither imagined Cruz would call a few days later with some news of his own: He'd just been traded to D.C.
“I said, ‘Guess what, buddy, I’ll see you there,’” Cruz recalled. “He was the first friend I called. I’ll remember it forever. We’ve been close buddies since we were kids, and now we were heading to the same team. This is something special. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Rookie Rankings: DeLeon rooted to the top
DeLeon himself can’t imagine being in a better situation during his rookie season.
“It was big-time, honestly,” said DeLeon, who shares an apartment with Cruz. “Coming here knowing that I had a good friend coming here as well made the change that much easier.”
Of course, their mood has been futher buoyed by the duo’s exceptional play on United’s wings through the first 11 games of 2012.
Cruz has made 10 appearances and scored once since taking over the right-midfield role in March when Andy Najar left for CONCACAF Olympic qualifying for Honduras.
But the real sensation has been DeLeon on the left flank. After scoring as a second half sub in D.C.’s second game of the season, a 3-1 loss in LA, DeLeon added two more goals and three assists in a string of eight consecutive starts, while assuming the position of one of the faces of the franchise, Chris Pontius.
Though Cruz expected his friend to find success, it has perhaps surprised DeLeon himself.
“I just came here expecting to put my head down and work hard,” DeLeon told MLSsoccer.com last week. “I knew it would be a battle [for playing time] and I don’t take any day for granted. I go into every practice with that mindset. I just work as hard as I can to prove to Benny [Olsen, head coach] that I deserve to be there.”
With DeLeon’s emergence has come a change of positions for Pontius, who has predominantly played forward since returning to full fitness after breaking his leg late last summer. The move has paid off for Olsen, as Pontius has scored five times during D.C.’s charge into third place in the East and emergence as the one of the league's highest-scoring sides.
It is also a young side. To date, seven players younger than age 25 have started at least three games for United.
But there are still experienced players like Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos in the mix. And both Cruz and DeLeon say that United’s blend of veteran leadership and young hunger has bred a positive, upbeat dynamic in the locker room.
Whether the four-time champs will develop into title contenders after missing the MLS Cup Playoffs the past four years is yet to be seen. But at the very least, D.C.’s newfound depth in midfield has bred healthy competition in training, which should only help the club down the stretch.
“It’s great competition,” Cruz said. “[DeLeon, Najar, Pontius and I] invite and enjoy it, and I think it’s helped make us successful. At the end of the day, we are winning games. As any of us will tell you, that’s all we care about. We all respect each other as players and help each other out — that’s the best thing about it.
Rookie Report: Mighty-mite Rowe looms large for Revolution
“Andy hasn’t been starting as much lately, and he’s been unbelievably professional about it. All of us want to get onto the field and will do anything to play, but the mindset is just to work harder in practice and prove you deserve it.”
WATCH: DeLeon bends his shot around Saunders
It’s hard to argue that DeLeon doesn’t deserve his starting nod. Entering this weekend, he is the league’s highest-scoring rookie and is closing in on the D.C. United rookie record of five goals in a season.
The record doesn’t seem to interest DeLeon, though. He places greater value on the team’s four wins in six games. In fact, he didn’t know he was on pace to break the record owned jointly by Najar, Santino Quaranta and Freddy Adu until reporters recently brought it up during an interview.
Cruz believes that type of humility will make his once and future teammate successful as a professional. The two even have a pregame routine that reiterates DeLeon’s attitude.
“Something we always say before games is, ‘Go to work’ — he doesn’t look at it any other way," Cruz said. "About that rookie goals record, he wasn’t lying: The kid has no idea. As long as I’ve known him, he hasn’t changed a bit and that’s what I respect most about him.
“My first year, I was ready to leave college, but not ready to contribute as a pro. And he is. I just tell him: 'Be you and enjoy every minute.'”
So far, DeLeon is taking his friend's advice.