Nick DeLeon knew it was time.
The rookie – who lit up MLS through the season’s openingmonths – has been quiet this summer. He hadn’t scored a goal or registered an assist in three months, astreak that both the 22-year-old and his club were desperate to see end.
“I need to step it up,” DeLeon acknowledged in a pre-game television interview beforeSaturday’s 1-0 victory over Columbus. “I had a good start, but I’m not contentwith that.”
If there is such a thing as a ‘rookie wall’, DeLeon hit it inMay. After chalking up three goalsand three assists during a brilliant seven-game stretch between March andApril, the flashy winger went silent. One of D.C.’s best 1-on-1 attackers, DeLeon missed four straight gamesin May with a hamstring injury.
When he did return to the lineup, DeLeon says he had troublefinding his ‘rhythm’ – along with the form that saw the winger labeled as theearly front-runner for MLS Rookie of the Year.“I noticed it,” said DeLeon of the drop in form. “My touch was off, and mentally I wasoff. But I had Ben [Olsen] in myear pushing me every day and the last couple of weeks I’ve really pushed myselfharder in practice. It’s showingon the field.”
“They all hit it at different times, for different lengths,”added Olsen when asked about first-year players hitting a 'rookie wall'. “It’s always tough to manage as a coach, because they need to play and they wantto force their way out of the funk that they are in."
Against the Crew, DeLeon did just that. In the 49th minute he took off on adazzling run down the right flank, rounding Crew defender Josh Williams easilybefore sending in a cross that eventually ended in Chris Pontius’ game-winninggoal.
DeLeon wasn’t credited with an assist on the play, but thedifference-making effort drew plenty of praise from around United's locker room.
“Nick’s biggest strength is going at guys 1-on-1,” saidPontius, who recorded his team-high tenth goal of the year. “He did that tonight and I thought heshowed the confidence that he had in the beginning of the year. That is huge for us.”