The 2018 MLS Re-Entry Draft’s first stage did not pass uneventfully for D.C. United, who lost veteran midfielder/defender Nick DeLeon to Toronto FC. TFC, with the fifth overall selection, grabbed the 28 year old, who had previously spent his entire professional career with United. As teams had declined their chance to retain players involved in the Re-Entry Draft (RED), the Black-and-Red receive no compensation.
In a team release, United GM Dave Kasper said “Nick was a model professional for D.C. United for the entirety of his tenure at the club. He gave everything he had for his fellow players, coaches and the fans each time he stepped foot on the field to represent us. We want to thank him for his service and tireless commitment to the Black-and-Red and wish him the best of luck in his next chapter in Toronto.”
There were distinct signs that United wanted to bring DeLeon back at a lower price tag, but that choice left D.C. having to wait through both stages of the RED before getting a chance to pick up negotiations. With DeLeon’s contract option rumored to come with a nearly 20% pay raise and United facing a possible salary cap crunch, the club’s hopes hinged on other MLS sides being put off by recent injuries, which was clearly not the case.
DeLeon tweeted his farewell minutes after the news broke:
To my DCU family , you will forever hold a place in my heart . I had 7 wonderful years in DC playing at Rfk and now seeing Audi field. My family and I are forever grateful to the DCU organization and supporters . Love you all .— Nick DeLeon (@NickDeLeon7) December 14, 2018
United selected DeLeon 7th overall in the 2012 SuperDraft, and he emerged as a starter right away. His rookie year was also his best in terms of being an attacking threat. DeLeon scored 6 goals and added 4 assists in 28 appearances, before going on to score twice in United’s run to the Eastern Conference final. His dramatic late winner against the New York Red Bulls is arguably the most remarkable goal United has scored in the last decade:
Happy trails, @NickDeLeon7. He leaves #DCU fans with so many good memories, but let's be honest - this moment, seared into the brains of so many of you, is an all-time memorable moment in the club's history. This is still fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/eAgsQFvJKC— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) December 14, 2018
DeLeon never matched his first pro season in terms of production, but he was nevertheless considered a reliable presence in United’s midfield for years, playing over 1,900 minutes in each of his first five seasons. Over time, Ben Olsen began looking at DeLeon in other positions, first trying him as a linking central midfielder before eventually seeing him as a fullback in the latter stages of 2016.
Injuries became a factor in 2017, a season that saw him appear only 19 times, and that continued in 2018, the first time he appeared in fewer than half of United’s games. Knee surgery earlier this year left him with a bone-on-bone condition on one side, a painful situation that can’t be dealt with beyond pain tolerance and rest. DeLeon played every second of United’s first 9 games this past year before needing to come off in the first half of May 26’s draw at LAFC. He didn’t appear in the next 19 games, breaking the streak with a late cameo in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on October 7.
DeLeon’s final appearance for United was a wild one. Paul Arriola, filling in for DeLeon at right back due to the quick turnaround from regular season finale to knockout round, suffered a knock, making way for DeLeon in the 70th minute. The game went to extra time, where the Columbus Crew took the lead. With hopes fading, DeLeon produced an incredible equalizer in the 116th minute:
It just had to be @NickDeLeon7! We're level at @AudiField!#DCvCLB // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs https://t.co/uiwvnDE6zM— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 2, 2018
The reaction literally shook the Audi Field press box, but the jubilation wouldn’t last. The match went to penalties, and misses from Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta left United needing a goal on their fifth and final shot. DeLeon stepped up, but sadly scooped his shot over the crossbar, stunning a capacity crowd.
Nonetheless, DeLeon’s United career coming to a close drew mourning from Black-and-Red fans. 180 career appearances, a 2013 US Open Cup title, some absolutely crucial goals (DeLeon scored 4 of his 17 career MLS goals in the playoffs, for example), and an unquestioned dedication to the cause will do that.
The move has larger ramifications for United from a roster perspective. DeLeon’s salary was going to be somewhere near $300,000 for 2019, which is a significant amount of money now open for Dave Kasper to make moves elsewhere. On the other hand, with DeLeon gone, Oniel Fisher facing months out due to knee surgery, and Chris Odoi-Atsem battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, United is now indisputably in the market for a right back.
DeLeon was one of three players selected in the Re-Entry Draft’s first stage. Before him, the Colorado Rapids picked NYCFC goalkeeper Andre Rawls, while Real Salt Lake brought former homegrown defender Donny Toia home after Orlando City had declined his option. Stage 2 will take place next Thursday, December 20, at 2:00pm Eastern.