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D.C. United player review: Nick DeLeon

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The fifth-year winger — no, central midfielder — no, make that fullback — takes his turn under the microscope

MLS: Chicago Fire at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

This is a remarkably tricky player review to find a hook for. Should I focus on Nick DeLeon’s worst season as a pro in terms of offensive production? Do I open with his transitioning into not one but two new positions over the course of the year? Or do I just blow it off and talk about the man’s incredible hair game?

I think we all know the right answer here.

On a team so staid even the most basic undercut would look avant-garde, Nick DeLeon’s mane is a beacon. Over the years, he’s had cornrows and starkly bleached twists. He’s channeled Carlos Valderrama’s golden do. He's gone clean-cut. And in 2016, Nicky stepped it to another level for a spell, slowly honing a wonderful curly mohawk before going with the bald-is-beautiful look to end the year.

So, props to you, Nicky. May your cosmetological daring know no bounds!

Now, about the other stuff.

Last year in this space, after a second consecutive 2-goal 5-assist season, we described DeLeon as Ben Olsen’s most reliable player. If that remained true in 2016, in which the Phoenix native scored once and was credited with zero assists, it was certainly in a different way.

DeLeon began the year with a new brief: he’d be moving from the two-way wide midfielder role he’d filled into the center of the park. In past year, Nicky had shown he could help out in central zones, pinching in from the right side to help Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen make numbers in the engine room. But with Arnaud retired and Kitchen off to Scotland (and with Markus Halsti on the outs), there was a need centrally. The arrival of Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle meant DeLeon’s talents weren’t needed on the outside.

So into the middle he went, where his results were decidedly mixed. DeLeon was certainly reliable in that spot, recording the best passing percentage on the team basically every game. But he didn’t provide the forward thrust the midfield needed, instead shuttling the ball mostly horizontally, to the fullbacks and wide midfielders.

I’d argue that he improved once Ben Olsen pulled the trigger on the formation switch from the 442 to the 4141, which put DeLeon slightly higher up the field and much closer to Luciano Acosta. But he still didn’t make as many late runs into the box or generate the offensive production you usually want to see from central midfield.

And so Rob Vincent and Jared Jeffrey elbowed their way into consideration, just in time for another spot on the field to open up.

Nothing in 2016 probably affected the popular view of Nick DeLeon more than the calf injury to fullback Sean Franklin in the September 11 downpour game against the Red Bulls. From that point on, DeLeon was a right back conversion project, and one that exceeded expectations.

Nicky himself said that he had never been really comfortable in the center of the park, without a sideline nearby. And even though he had never started a professional game at fullback, he took to the spot quickly. There were rough moments, and the novelty of the position certainly showed at times. But as one who was skeptical of the move, I found myself not only enjoying his stand-in performance, but even coming around to the notion that DeLeon should be listed as a defender/midfielder on the 2017 roster and should enter preseason next year competing with Sean Franklin for a starting gig on the back line.

That is assuming, of course, that he sticks around. Which brings us to our vote. Have your say in the Cake-or-Death poll on this most auspicious of voting days (Also: go vote in the for-real election if you haven’t already!), and then have it out in the comments.