Upon joining D.C. United some 10 months ago, Nick DeLeon envisioned himself thriving on the biggest stages MLS has to offer. How quickly such events would transpire, of course, was a mystery. But he was confident it would be soon.
"I really get up for big moments," the midfielder said. "When there is a lot on the line, that's when I really come out."
Fans across the league certainly have learned as much in the past week.
With United and the New York Red Bulls on the verge of overtime in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal Thursday, it was DeLeon who buried an 88th-minute strike to clinch the series.
And three days later, the rookie again found net to give United an early lead at Houston, although the Dynamo ultimately walked away with a 3-1 triumph in the first leg of the conference final.
For a United team that has distributed the spotlight since captain Dwayne De Rosario went down with a mid-September knee injury, the postseason has been DeLeon's time to shine.
"You don't know who it's going to be at this point with our group, and that's a great thing," coach Ben Olsen said. "It's a great thing to have different options. If a team focuses on one guy, you have trust someone else can fill in and give you some offensive production. That's a really good sign."
During the long summer months, however, DeLeon wasn't rewarding that faith. After the Louisville product notched three goals and three assists in his first seven games, a combination of injuries and fatigue kept DeLeon from getting his name on the score sheet in United's subsequent 13 matches.
His touch seemed heavier. His runs from the flank weren't quite as sharp. And that brazen tenacity faded.
When comparing the nine-month MLS campaign to the four-month college slate DeLeon was accustomed to, it's not hard to understand why.
"I'm getting used to it," said DeLeon, who finished the season with six goals in 28 games. "There was a little stretch over the summer when it was getting tough, but now my body is getting acclimated to it, and my legs feel fine. Mentally, I'm here. So I've held up pretty well."
Added second-year midfielder Perry Kitchen: "It happens because it's your first long season, and you're getting into it. Nobody had any doubts about him, so let's hope he can keep up this form because it's really helping us."
DeLeon surely will be leaned on Sunday as United try to overcome a two-goal deficit in the home leg of their two-match, total-goals series against Houston.
But Olsen likes to think the 22-year-old's emergence is just the start of a long-term return to prominence for a D.C. organization relishing its first playoff appearance since 2007.
"It's a good sign that we have another great young player for the future and foundation of this club, which is still what this is about," said Olsen, who took over as coach in August 2010. "These last two years have been about creating the foundation that we can consistently make playoffs."
NOTE: Olsen on Wednesday said the outlooks for defender Brandon McDonald (calf) and midfielder Marcelo Saragosa (knee) are positive. Midfielder-forward Chris Pontius' groin strain, however, "looks a little bit more severe." All three are listed as questionable. De Rosario (MCL sprain) is probable.
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