D.C. United's midfield has undergone a major overhaul this offseason. Perry Kitchen's departure required - maybe still requires? - at least one move to be made, and Davy Arnaud unfortunately appears to be on the brink of retirement. Chris Pontius, the club's longest-tenured player, is now a member of the Philadelphia Union. Michael Farfan was cut loose. Just today, Conor Doyle was traded to Colorado.
The list of new faces is long even before you bring up rumored signings like Luciano Acosta. Marcelo Sarvas, brought in from Colorado, appears to be a replacement for Arnaud. Lamar Neagle was acquired the same day that Pontius was officially traded to Philly. Patrick Nyarko has been brought in to give United more speed and a threat to beat players on the dribble. United also picked up Julian Buescher and Paul Clowes at the SuperDraft (with Buescher, as a Generation Adidas player, under contract from the moment United selected him).
What does all of this mean for Nick DeLeon? In 2014 and 2015, DeLeon's spot as a starter was pretty much assured. His position might change, but anyone observing United knew that DeLeon was only missing games if injured or if he needed rest due to a mid-week game. He was 5th on the team in minutes played last year, and 3rd in 2014. Given the physical demands of the role he tends to play and the fact that Olsen's first substitute is almost always a wide midfielder or a forward, that's remarkable.
United fans appear to have a complicated relationship with DeLeon. He's a likable player whose commitment to the cause - here's his DCU tattoo - is not in doubt. His work rate on both sides of the ball is a crucial factor in making the 442 work in what has rapidly become a 4231/433 league. DeLeon's reliability as a passer is very important for a team that tends to lose the possession battle more often than not. In games where United just didn't have it for whatever reason, we often saw DeLeon step up as the one player offering his normal level of play.
On the other hand, any discussion of DeLeon is tinged by the fact that his 6 goals scored as a rookie in 2012 make up 50% of his regular season goals as a professional. If we add in his 2 playoff goals that year, DeLeon had more goals in his first pro season than he's scored since (8 in 2012, 7 since). For a team that doesn't have a star attacker to carry the goalscoring load, the thought of DeLeon finding his 2012 form in front of goal remains a tantalizing thought even as it appears more and more to have been a (particularly well-timed) flash in the pan.
Nyarko's arrival from Chicago likely means that United will have a new first-choice right midfielder. In 2015, United's lack of speed all over the field was the most glaring deficiency in a gameplan that often involved defending deep. Nyarko may or may not be as fast as he was in the early days of his career, but he's still likely the fastest attacking player the Black-and-Red have right now. Furthermore, he's coming off of a season in which he was involved in just as many goals as DeLeon (3 goals, 4 assists instead of 2g/5a) in 999 fewer minutes played. That happened on the worst team in MLS, too; with better players around him and a full season of games, Nyarko figures to rack up more assists than DeLeon would in the same role.
Neagle also adds more speed on the left than DeLeon would, and he's more of a goal threat to boot. Neagle will probably spend some time up front, but if you had to handicap the battle for United's starting left midfield job it would be wise to give Neagle lower odds at this point. Neagle's speed and ability to be a more formidable third threat to score in the starting lineup than the Black-and-Red previously had will give him an edge, particularly if he develops good chemistry with Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe. With those two often vacating the center forward channel, United needs aggressive runs from midfield to maintain a presence in that area; Neagle's game features a lot more of that than any other wide man on the roster save possibly Miguel Aguilar.
As a result of that, as well as attempts to give trialists a chance to make their case in the preseason, what we've seen thus far in 2016 is DeLeon playing central midfield. There are reasons to think he's got this transition in him: He completed over 82% of his passes in 2015 despite playing wide, which is a good omen for a central role. His work rate and body type fit the job as well, and the fact that he's shown a knack for driving attacking moves into the attacking third could be helpful as well.
However, having the raw tools for the job is not the same thing as being able to do it. Steven Streff had had the chance to ask DeLeon about the move at this past weekend's jersey unveiling:
For a lot of this first two weeks I’ve been playing in the middle. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment. Offensively, looking good, feeling comfortable. Defensively, it’s a little bit of an adjustment. But it’s pre-season, so I’m slowly getting more comfortable...That’s what’s been the adjustment. Just the defensive side. I’m feeling more comfortable slowly, so the more I play there the more comfortable I’ll be. We still have a few more weeks of pre-season to go, so hopefully I can get that spot down pat. It’s different.
Ben Olsen, at the same event, was positive about DeLeon's potential in a central role:
Yeah, no question. We are going to have good depth out wide, and Nicky is a guy we’ve liked in there the few times we’ve used him in the past. We’re looking to maximize, and find a spot he can really excel in. It’s something we are going to look at. We know he can play wide, but it’s not crazy for guys to change up positions through their career.
Still, we have to wonder if there's a 2016 starting gig available in that part of the field. It seems doubtful that Olsen intends to play DeLeon as his most defensive-minded player in a double pivot, meaning that Markus Halsti will probably take that role. Sarvas was not brought in to sit the bench, either, and he's a good fit for what Olsen wants out of someone given a little more attacking freedom in that set-up.
In United's two preseason games, DeLeon played that latter role or something broadly similar to it in both games. However, Sarvas was not on the team when the first match happened, and had been with the club for about 24 hours when the second kicked off. In all likelihood, the Brazilian will take the lion's share of minutes in the engine room.
Let's circle back to what all of these developments mean for DeLeon. The three roles he realistically could see time in are all occupied by players that are arguably favorites to start ahead of him. Neagle is probably the most vulnerable in a vacuum, but his ability to score goals from the left is a thumb on his side of the scale. DeLeon could also win the battle with Nyarko on the right, rendering much of this piece moot. In both cases, the margins between the players involved are gaps rather than chasms. If DeLeon takes the next step as a player, or is more compatible with someone like Acosta (assuming the Argentine signs and is a success from the get-go), that could also see him stay in the starting eleven.
What seems more likely at this point is that DeLeon will play in just about every game, but may sub in about two-thirds of the time. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to get starts: Nyarko and Neagle will not start 34 games, and Neagle is going to play as a forward from time to time. Sarvas is 34, which means he will need rest. United will face mid-week games, injuries, and suspensions. DeLeon is going to play a lot, even if he's not starting 30+ games.
Maybe the best way to think of this for United fans is to note the progress the club has made in improving their starters. With Conor Doyle heading to Colorado, a scenario in which DeLeon doesn't start would almost certainly have to include DeLeon taking up Doyle's minutes as a high-energy sub in games where a goal is needed and as a more defensively secure sub when Olsen wants to close up shop. Those are not the roles that get a ton of headlines, but they're still very important.
If United's offseason moves end with DeLeon playing minutes that would have gone to Doyle, that would be a victory for the club even if it's not an ideal scenario for the player. On the flip side, if DeLeon fights his way through all of this to keep his previously unchallenged starting spot, all the better. United needs to improve if they want to win silverware, and that means challenging or upgrading the starters. DeLeon has a battle on his hands this year for minutes, but that is ultimately good news.