TORONTO – When the MLS Cup Playoffs kickoff this weekend, it will be a particularly sweet occasion for Nick DeLeon.
The midfielder, who joined Toronto FC in the offseason, will be squaring off against his former club, D.C. United, at BMO Field on Saturday.
“Definitely fitting and definitely looking forward to it,” smiled DeLeon. “I don’t know if words will do it any justification, but I’m looking forward to being a part of that game.”
It will be the third time this season that DeLeon’s path crosses that of his old team.
In May, the two played out a lop-sided scoreless draw that saw Toronto fling innumerable shots on D.C.’s goal – it was 36 shots, to be exact. At the time, DeLeon stressed it was a game he could not lose.
And in the return fixture at Audi Field in June, it was DeLeon himself who put TFC ahead, only for a last-minute VAR decision to award D.C. a penalty kick, which Wayne Rooney dispatched.
DeLeon is still looking for that win; given the stakes, it would be all the more sweet should it come on Saturday.
“I would assume he is,” said Greg Vanney when asked about whether he saw some extra bounce in DeLeon’s step. “Nick is a competitor. Second half of the season has been a grind for him, but the guy just keeps putting it out there, keeps sacrificing for the team, every single day, every single week.”
“I’m sure he’s looking forward to the playoffs in general,” added Vanney. “And some measure of playing against his old club.”
The 29-year-old was selected seventh-overall by D.C. in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft and spent the next seven seasons in the American capital. Naturally a wide attacking midfielder, DeLeon was drafted into a full-back role last season and it soon became clear his future lay elsewhere.
Toronto snapped up DeLeon in Stage 1 of the 2018 Re-Entry Draft with the fifth selection last December and by the middle of April, he had already earned himself a new contract with the Reds.
“First off, he’s a guy that everybody likes. He gets along with everybody,” said Vanney. “He’s a guy that beats to his own drum, he’s never really caught up in one group or the other, he does his own thing and he can be with any group, any person individually, and he’s fine. He’s comfortable with who he is as a man and therefore he goes about his business.”
“And the second part of that, he’s an incredible professional. He takes care of himself, does his routines and his work every single day, he’s focused and locked in. Regardless of how he’s feeling, he’s going to go out there and give you everything,” continued the TFC coach. “That’s a culture guy: ready to take on any adversity or any challenge, just do it, attack it and bring others guys with him. Those guys are diamonds, we’re really happy to have him.”
The move up north wasn’t easy at first.
“It started out weird,” recalled DeLeon. “A little different, especially being with the same team so long.”
On the field, however, the transition was “natural”.
“Playing for this club has been incredible and soccer-wise it’s been one of my best years in a while,” said DeLeon, whose six goals matches a career high, set as a rookie. “I’ve had a lot of fun this year. We’re a very attacking-minded team and it’s fun to play on that type of team.”
“And off the field it’s been good,” he continued. “At first wasn’t easy, wasn’t all rainbows, but kids got used to the new daycare, wife got used to the new location. Me and my family have a pretty good mentality of wherever we are, as long as we’re together, we’ll make it home. After that transition phase it felt like home, being here.”
Every MLS season is a grind, but some more so than others.
TFC was a team that was evolving as the games came thick and fast.
“It’s been a long year, it’s taken a lot of growth and development to get to the point we’re at now,” said DeLeon. “A little rocky in the middle of the year, but we’ve found our form moving into post-season.”
His measure of success is a high bar.
When his two professional worlds clash once more on Saturday, DeLeon expects more of the same: “I don’t think they’ll sit as much [as they did in that first meeting], but we’re going to have a lot of the ball, especially here at home.”
“The emphasis is going to be on us moving the ball quick. They have talent up top, so you have to be careful on the counter. They’ll play for counters; we’ll have the majority of possession,” he forecast. “It will be similar to when we played them here, but they will press us more.”
“It’s going to be up to us break them down, which isn’t easy to do,” he added. “How we do that: ball speed, quick decisions, and some individual brilliance sprinkled in there as well.”
“Looking forward to it,” DeLeon said with a grin. “It’s a good opportunity: playing at home, BMO is going to be rocking, playing D.C., sweet for me, the stars are lining up.”