HARRISON, N.J. – D.C. United president and CEO Kevin Payne had a premonition over lunch on Thursday afternoon.
On the verge of a match that could have been his club’s last in 2012, Payne predicted a 2-0 victory with goals by veteran right back Robbie Russell and rookie midfielder Nick DeLeon.
And while Payne would look like a savant right now had he predicted even a portion of the chaos that ensued at Red Bull Arena in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the league’s longest-standing rivals, he came remarkably close with those names.
On the 88th-minute play that sent United to the Eastern Conference Championship for the first time since 2006, it wasn’t Russell who scored. But he did deliver a clever right-footed through ball to DeLeon, who quickly blasted the ball inside Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles’ near post for the game-winner.
“I got the score wrong, but Robbie had the assist and Nick scored,” Payne said afterward in a jubilant D.C. locker room. “It’s nice. It’s fun to be in the playoffs. It’s fun to be the center of attention and the team that people talk about.”
And, following what was one of the more memorable playoff matches in one of the more memorable playoff series in MLS history, DeLeon will be a player that people talk about.
The playmaker out of the University of Louisville has scored a seven goals this season, most even by a United rookie, none bigger than his series-clincher that snuck underneath Robles.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m speechless,” DeLeon said. “Just being a part of this group, it’s been a great journey and it’s not over yet. The fans, man. I can’t thank them enough for coming out. This is for them, this is for our franchise, this if for everybody.”
His finish couldn’t have come at a better spot on the field, either. As soon as the ball crossed the line, DeLeon tried to take his jersey off, then paused and instead pounded his fist against his chest and, as he was being hugged by Chris Pontius, looked up with a passionate, intense gaze at the roughly 300 United supporters – many of whom were back again after Wednesday’s snow-out – going wild in section 202.
“We came out today to try to prove something about the credit we deserve,” DeLeon said. “We’re going to keep proving people wrong. That’s what we’re here to do.”
DeLeon’s goal is another in the long line of timely strikes by various contributors as United remain undefeated (6-0-3) since captain Dwayne De Rosario was injured on Sept. 11.
“I wish I could tell you I sprinkled a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it became this well-oiled, gelled, spirited team, but it’s a good group,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s a group of good guys that are willing to fight and back each other up and are selfless. That is a base that’s very positive.”
Early in the second half, DeLeon switched outside midfield position with Pontius in an effort to gain a tactical advantage. He also appeared slightly hobbled for a brief stretch, but it mattered not when he planted his ball from Russell and kept his team’s season alive.
“I came down the right side and my guy didn’t come with me,” Russell said. “Lio [Pajoy] had a great ball across. I saw the whole defense shifting this way. Nicky made a great run and an amazing finish. It was a perfect time to score.”