For the past 3½ months, Nick DeLeon has found himself running right up against the rookie wall. Those darting runs from the flank that came with such frequency earlier have been few and far between. Concurrently, his spot in the starting lineup became an uncertain proposition.
But in D.C. United's 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday, DeLeon turned back the clock to the spring, creating Chris Pontius' goal with a foray down the right side that blended the speed, physicality and skill that made the midfielder an early Rookie of the Year candidate.
"I kind of saw some of that early Nick DeLeon," coach Ben Olsen said. "He made just a great individual play."
The triumph over Columbus (8-8-4) snapped a two-game losing streak for United (11-7-3) and gave the club its seventh straight win at RFK Stadium.
Pontius' strike came four minutes after halftime. Muscling off stiff opposition from Josh Williams, DeLeon beat the left back down the wing and end line, danced around a challenge from Milovan Mirosevic and forced a pass in front of goal.
"I just heard the sideline saying, 'Go at him, got at him,'" DeLeon said. "[Williams] gave me a little space toward the line. I just went at him, and fortunately enough I got it through."
Once Sebastian Miranda blocked a back heel stab from United striker Long Tan, Pontius was there at the far post to hammer home his 10th tally of the season.
After notching three goals and three assists in his first seven appearances for United, DeLeon hasn't made a statistical contribution since April 22 — shortly before he was sidelined four games with a hamstring injury.
While his play to set up Pontius doesn't go down in the record book as an assist, it's safe to say he earned the credit.
"I felt like mentally I got into a little slump," DeLeon said. "So recently I've just really been focusing on amping my game up to the next level because you can't be satisfied with where you're at. So these couple weeks in practice, I've just been working hard, pushing it, trying to get to that next level."
Added Pontius: "It's tough. You go from having a three-month season to all of a sudden, with preseason, it's 10-plus months. So consistency is the hardest thing as a rookie."
Olsen went with the starting 11 he auditioned in practice throughout the week, giving Tan, 24, his first start since the player was acquired June 28 from Vancouver. The coach also added center back Emiliano Dudar, who hadn't made a league appearance since straining his hamstring in late April.
United were the aggressors in the first half. After D.C. sent a slew of long balls out of the back, forward Dwayne De Rosario began dropping into midfield to help break down the conservative strategy of the Crew, who defeated United 1-0 in Columbus two weeks ago.
"It was a little bit complicated," Dudar said via a translator. "It's one of the things we need to work on during the week, to learn how to administer the ball better because it has to be one of our key things at home."
In the 13th minute, Andy Gruenebaum made an exquisite kick save to deny Tan after a give-and-go with De Rosario. Just before halftime, Kitchen struck the post when he ran onto a looping through ball from De Rosario. United also drew a trio of yellow cards.
Once United took the lead, the game opened up. In the 58th minute, Pontius nearly bagged his second goal when he put his own rebound just over the bar.
As D.C. grew fatigued, Columbus heaped on the pressure late. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid asserted himself well, though, and his defenders lunged to block several shots.
"It wasn't a great performance from us overall," Olsen said. "But it was a win. And it was an important win right now, with the results we've had as of late. We had to grind one out."
NOTES: Defender Daniel Woolard exited in the 63rd minute when he suffered a head injury in a collision with Dudar. Substitutes Lewis Neal and Dejan Jakovic filled in at left back. ... Midfielder Branko Boskovic played the full 90 minutes for the first time since Oct. 23, 2010. The Montenegrin tore his ACL in April 2011. ... Designated player Hamdi Salihi (five goals) was left of the 18-man game-day roster as a coach's decision.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.