It’s been quite a while since anyone has spotted Nick DeLeon, given that he’s been out injured since April 15. The former first round draft pick has having a fine start to the 2017 season, becoming first choice at right back, even as D.C. United had a slow start to their campaign. Then, against the New York Red Bulls, DeLeon was pushed up to the midfield, but came off immediately after the start of the second half. DeLeon needed hernia surgery to repair the issue, and after three months away, he’s finally back, ready to be picked by Ben Olsen.
The biggest question now is - where do you play Nick DeLeon?
“Your guess is as good as mine, honestly,” DeLeon admitted to B&RU this week. “Whatever Benny wants me to do, I’ll do.”
In his first four seasons with the club, DeLeon was primarily used as a wide midfielder, with the occasional spot duty at right back, but only when absolutely necessary. Then, with the acquiring of Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko before the 2016 season, Olsen asked DeLeon to play as a center midfielder.
That didn’t quite work out, mostly due to the position not meshing with the skill set that DeLeon has developed over the years. But towards the end of the 2016 season, DeLeon moved to right back, filling in for the injured Sean Franklin. That worked well enough, and Olsen had different ideas for Franklin. So DeLeon became the starter at right back, all the way up until that game against the Red Bulls, when Olsen wanted DeLeon’s physicality in midfield.
His injury was unrelated to that move, of course, but DeLeon said after the game that he thought he could have played through the pain, thinking it was just a groin injury. Instead, he had to have surgery to repair a bilateral sports hernia. That has kept him off the field for the past three months, not the couple of weeks that a groin muscle issue would have dictated.
“That was definitely a surprise. It was a weird feeling,” DeLeon said of learning that he needed surgery for a hernia. “It just felt like a tight muscle. It was a shock to find out surgery was needed.”
In the meantime, Franklin at first reclaimed the right back spot. Then Franklin went down injured, and Chris Korb was re-signed, 20 months after he tore his ACL. Since then, Korb and rookie Chris Odoi-Atsem have split time at right back. And now that everyone is healthy, United sit four deep at right back, a position where that kind of depth isn’t exactly necessary.
“It’s a logjam there at right back. We aren’t hurting for that position,” Olsen told B&RU this week. “I think [Franklin] is as good as anybody in the league. Korb has shined as well. Chris Odoi-Atsem is a very promising young talent, and [DeLeon] has over the last year, developed into a good right back.”
That’s led to DeLeon returning to a more familiar role in practice since he has returned.
“Last couple of trainings, I have been on the left wing,” DeLeon said. “There’s been talks about anywhere [on the field]. I just have to be ready to step on the field and contribute.”
In some cases, having the skills to bounce between positions could help a player getting playing time on the field. In other cases, such as DeLeon’s though, it could hinder him. While he’s valuable at right back and left or right midfielder, he’s arguably not the best single option at any of those positions. Which leaves him as a man without a set position, to hear Olsen tell it.
“It’s a good problem to have, but sometimes your versatility helps you, and sometimes it hurts you,” said Olsen. “Nicky is a guy we know we can play in four or five different spots. It’s not the greatest thing for a player to be bounced around all the time. But as a coach, it’s nice to have that versatility with a guy. He’s always willing to do what we need from a team standpoint.”
While sidelined, DeLeon has had to watch idly for the past 15 games, as United’s season has never gotten out of first gear. Wins on the road against Atlanta United and the Vancouver Whitecaps remain high points, as United sits in dead last in MLS, the lowest scoring team in the league. For the guy who scored the winner the last time United won a playoff series, it hasn’t made for easy watching.
“It’s been tough. Especially because I can’t do anything about it. I just have to watch,” DeLeon told B&RU on Thursday. “I don’t think we’re necessarily playing bad, it’s just that we’re not finishing the ball. It’s been a theme this year. But now that I’m back, I’m going to do whatever I can do to help the team be successful.”
DeLeon was back with the team before the Gold Cup break, but wasn’t in contention to be back on the field before the team went their separate ways after the 4-2 loss to Dallas on July 4th. But since they’ve been back, and since DeLeon has put himself back into the playing picture, wherever that may be, DeLeon has noticed a difference within the team. One that he hopes can change the fortunes of the Black-and-Red’s season over the next 15 games.
“The mentality has been great. This week has been a hard week. They’ve pushed us mentally and physically, and I think the guys have responded very well,” said DeLeon. “You can feel it out on the field. People are hungry and competing. That break was good for a lot of guys, to check out, and get their mind rights.”