Part of being an elite athlete is pushing your body to its limits. To be stronger, you break down your muscles every day in the weight room, just to build them up. To be fitter, you run until your legs can no longer support you, knowing they won’t fail you when it counts. To be better at your sport, you practice until you are master of your trade. But with the physical demands of the job, comes the dreaded occupational hazard—injuries.
D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon just lived this truth. On March 23, 2013, the Black-and-Red hosted the Columbus Crew. After United’s Rafael notched his first MLS goal and evened the score, DeLeon went down. The talented midfielder would be diagnosed with a grade-two hamstring strain. The 2012 Rookie of the Year Finalist was sidelined for six and a half weeks— helplessly watching his team struggle to find its offensive identity, accumulating five loses in the process.
“Sitting on the side, it’s tough because you can’t do anything,” said DeLeon when asked about his frustrations.
But the young star doesn’t have to sit on the side any longer. DeLeon made his return on May 8 against Houston, subbing on for outside back Daniel Woolard in the 71st minute. At the time, the Dynamo was leading 2-0. DeLeon entered the game trying to add an offensive spark to a team struggling to find its offensive groove. However, Houston would eventually score two more goals, ultimately dropping United 4-0.
“Actually stepping on the field and having it happen, first person, directly to you, it sucks,” expressed DeLeon. “So, I’m starting to feel a little bit of the weight of the team and the frustrations, but at the same time, I still do have that excitement of that ‘I get to play.’ So, it’s a healthy balance.”
That balance will be crucial going forward, as his time is being closely monitored. However, he doesn’t have much time for frustration on the field. DeLeon has a job to do, and even in his limited time, he’s been doing it.
For DeLeon, “hard work is the bottom line.” Showing maturity beyond his 23 years, he explained that work ethic and desire can make up for a lot.
“If you’re skills aren’t there for the day, whatever, we can deal with it, but you still go out there and work hard,” he said.
And that is what he and his teammates did last Saturday against FC Dallas. Although the Black-and-Red left Dallas empty handed, energy, heart and hard work were evident on the pitch for 90 minutes.
DeLeon put in 45 hard minutes, working the sideline, combining with midfielders and forwards alike to get into the attack. DeLeon found himself in offensively threatening positions often, registering one shot and assisting on Dwayne De Rosario’s equalizing free kick.
It doesn’t seem like it will take long for DeLeon to hit his scoring stride. Last year, the midfielder was sidelined with the same injury from May 5-19. When he returned, he scored three more goals, earning the club record for most goals scored by a rookie (6). His fourth career goal came against Sporting Kansas City (how fitting) while his next came in a tie with New York, he also registered an assist on a De Rosario goal that game. Most notably, DeLeon netted the first equalizer against Columbus on 10/20/12, keeping the Black-and-Red playoff hopes alive. United would go on to win the match 3-2 and clinch its first playoff berth since 2007.
“I can’t explain how I felt then,” answered DeLeon, explaining the emotional comeback from injury. “It was like [sighs]… an unexplainable feeling. I felt like I was untouchable and confidence was through the roof. So as far as the difference is from now, it’s just the confidence and the fitness.”
DeLeon is not too worried about getting his confidence back. He understands it will take time, patience, and, of course, hard work.
“Once the fitness comes along, ill have the engine to go longer, to keep doing what I do,” he said.
And the Black-and-Red certainly needs the young star to begin “doing what he does” soon. Being on a seven game losing streak and having scored just five goals in 10 games, it’s clear that offensive inspiration is needed now more than ever.
But everyone is inspired differently, everyone is motivated differently, and everyone gains confidence differently. For Nick DeLeon, it’s pretty simple.
“Oh, it’s just wanting the ball,” stated DeLeon. “For me, little things to do are just demanding the ball at practice, just showing for it, putting a foot forward, and being that authority.”
Having been out for six weeks, DeLeon is composed and poised to do what is necessary to gain his confidence back – a theme the team as a whole has been struggling with thus far. To Nick DeLeon, though, confidence means one simple thing.
“To be confident, you’re just playing without fear,” he said.