Nick DeLeon’s MLS debut for D.C. United a good first impression

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If nothing else, D.C. United rookie Nick DeLeon knows how to make a first impression.

Making his professional debut Sunday in United’s 3-1 loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy, the midfielder entered as a 74th-minute substitute for Chris Pontius on the left flank. Thirteen minutes later, he made a diagonal run behind the Galaxy defense, latching onto Marcelo Saragosa’s through ball before curling a shot off the far post and into the back of the net.

While the late goal was trivial in the context of a match that already had been decided, the tally did end a frustrating scoreless drought for United (0-2-0) to start the season. And it showed a peek of what the club has in DeLeon, a first-round pick out of Louisville in January’s MLS SuperDraft.

“He’s acclimated very well so far,” coach Ben Olsen said. “Obviously, the last game was his first taste, and he passed with flying colors. He gave just what we want from our subs: energy. And he ends up getting a very good goal out of it.”

It was a welcome response from DeLeon after the 21-year-old failed to make the 18-man game day roster for United’s season opener against Sporting Kansas City a week earlier. With Pontius and 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar established on the wings, and former Houston Dynamo midfielder Danny Cruz also competing for minutes out wide, DeLeon was the odd man out for that contest.

“I was upset,” DeLeon acknowledged. “But there’s not much you can do except just go back to work in practice and push yourself even harder to prove to the coach that you deserve to be out there. All in all, it turned out to be a good move because it motivated me.”

With Najar now joining the Honduras under-23 national team for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, which starts Thursday in Nashville, Tenn., and concludes April 2 in Kansas City, Kan., a door has opened for DeLeon to earn more minutes in the coming weeks, starting with United’s match Saturday at the Vancouver Whitecaps (2-0-0).

While DeLeon prefers to play on the left side so he can cut in toward goal with his natural right foot, he said he would have no qualms about stepping in for Najar on the right if asked to do so, adding, “I’d fill in at any position the coach would put me in. I just want playing time.”

Although DeLeon still is raw in Olsen’s eyes, the second-year coach sees plenty of potential in the Arizona native, whose preseason progress was slowed by a quadriceps strain suffered at the MLS combine.

“He’s got a ways to go, but we’re very excited,” Olsen said. “He’s got very good soccer instincts. He’s a guy who’s pretty fearless. There are not too many weak spots in his game other than that he just needs to play and get minutes and acclimate to all the things the pro level brings. It’s faster - faster players, faster speed of thought and faster speed of play.”

It’s a sentiment shared by DeLeon, who notes he still tends to take one touch too many, thinking he has more time to operate on the ball than he really does.

But considering that DeLeon has all of 16 professional minutes under his belt, he realizes he has plenty of time to adjust.

“I still have a lot of work to do,” DeLeon said. “But I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.”

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