In the first match of the 2019 MLS regular season, two new faces made instant impacts in the Toronto FC starting lineup.
Nick DeLeon and Laurent Ciman made their first league appearances for TFC in Saturday's 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. Each, in their own way, were instrumental to earning a tricky result on the road.
DeLeon picked up an assist on Michael Bradley's opening goal and added the third in stoppage-time when he and Jonathan Osorio forced a turnover outside the Union box before picking out the bottom left-corner of goal from inside the arc with his right foot.
“It was a great goal. He finished it really nicely,” said Alex Bono post-match. “Nick has got a ton of quality, but first and foremost he brings it every day, doing the work defensively, making runs in behind. He's a really nice addition for us.”
DeLeon missed the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League series against CA Independiente with back spasms, but was inserted into the lineup for the second making an immediate difference.
“Nick has been fantastic every time we put him on the field,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “A veteran guy, a very smart player who reads situations well, has the work-rate of a horse, covers so much territory. He has a wonderful ability, similar to Osorio, to wiggle away from pressure, help you hold up balls, has got a nice acceleration to find new spaces.”
“For me, it was a steal in the offseason,” added Vanney of acquiring the player in the MLS Re-Entry Draft. “Can't say enough good things about him.”
Asked if he too thought himself a 'steal', DeLeon brushed it aside in his understated way: “That's not for me. I get out on the field and do my thing, that's for other people to worry about. Once I get my opportunity, I just try to make the best of it.”
Vanney's past experience with DeLeon is well-documented.
“I've always liked Nick,” said the TFC Coach. “I've known Nick since he was a kid, played for his dad when I was 12-years-old. I admired him when he was coming out of college, was happy for him when he got drafted; have watched him over the years.”
“We've asked and enquired about him over the years – D.C. was not willing to part with him,” continued Vanney. “I'm pleased to have him because you have to have veteran MLS guys who understand how to win in this league. He's one of those guys. He's come from a gritty D.C. United team that has learned to get results in every single possible way over the years. That's a mentality boost to our group.”
That boost was evident in TFC gutting out a result on a tough day away from home; it was fostered by a better showing in the second leg against Independiente.
“Our mentality was so much better in that game, we built off it,” said DeLeon. “You saw it in this game: it wasn’t the prettiest, but we grinded it out for each other.”
DeLeon has fit in nicely with the 'All for One' ethos at Toronto FC.
“Nick has been fantastic in every way since he got here. You couldn't ask for a better guy,” said Bradley pre-match. “He's all about the team. I can’t say enough good things about Nick and how happy we are to have him, on the field and as a teammate as well.”
Having tested the international market for additions ahead of the 2018 season and finding the success rate limited, TFC reverted to a tried and tested formula.
“Back in 2016, we got the Drew Moors, the Beitashours, guys who know what it takes to play in this league, what it takes get results,” observed Vanney on Thursday. “Those guys are invaluable.”
In Ciman, who also came with a ton of MLS experience from his days with the Montreal Impact and LAFC, Toronto brought another savvy veteran into the mix.
DeLeon's attacking play may have grabbed the plaudits post-match, but Ciman's contributions were just as vital to the result.
It was his cross that Andre Blake parried into the middle leading to Bradley's second, the game-winner, and the Belgian defender made a game-saving clearance come the 76th minute, clawing Marco Fabian's would-be-equalizer off the line to preserve Toronto's 2-1 lead at a delicate time.
“Laurent has been excellent since he's gotten here,” said Bradley on Thursday. “You see right away Laurent's quality. He has been a great presence and personality in the room. He and I have hit it off right away. His football qualities, his personality has been there for everyone to see.”
While there have been some missteps along the way, the insertion of Drew Moor between Ciman and Chris Mavinga saw TFC's back-line bend rather than break, weathering 90 minutes without conceding from open play.
All is trending in the right direction.
“Everything still needs to develop. When I talk about the team coming together late, that's what I mean. You need time to play your way into things,” reminded Bradley. “There is a lot there to like and feel good about, now it's just about the whole picture coming together a little more.”
And getting off to a gritty win in Philadelphia, an Eastern Conference opponent, when not at their best, is an excellent way to start.
“That shows a lot,” concluded DeLeon. “It’s not always going to be pretty, but if you can get wins like that that goes a long way at the end of the season. These points you'll be grateful for.”