- - Monday, February 29, 2016

D.C. United coach Ben Olsen sat down with Nick DeLeon in November, shortly after the club’s playoff defeat to the New York Red Bulls, and gave the 25-year-old some offseason homework.

After five seasons and 167 appearances in MLS play, defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen was out of contract. As the team prepared to move on, the front office wanted DeLeon — a fixture on the flanks for the past four years — to spend some time watching film of central midfielders.

Having spent the majority of this past preseason getting reps in the middle, DeLeon earned the start there for United’s 2-0 loss to Mexican club Queretaro on Feb. 23 in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg.

“It’s been a good transition,” DeLeon said. “You get to dictate the rhythm of the game and you get a lot more touches on the ball. For me, you feel like you’re involved a lot more, and I’m all about that. I love playing in the middle just because of that.”

DeLeon is poised to again start centrally as United looks to overturn its deficit against Queretaro on Tuesday at RFK Stadium in the decisive match of the two-game, total-goals series.

Following a breakout rookie campaign in 2012 that saw DeLeon compile eight goals throughout the regular season and playoffs, the Louisville product has scored just seven times over the three years since.

United moved this offseason to acquire veteran wingers Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko, giving Olsen more prolific options out wide and the flexibility to audition DeLeon in the middle. Although DeLeon said he lacked comfort to start preseason, he now feels more at ease with a position he had only played sporadically in past years.

“The first few [preseason matches], it was more thinking while I’m playing and it’s not coming instinctually,” DeLeon said. “I’m at that point now where the instincts are taking over and I’m not thinking as much as I was before, and it’s becoming more natural.”

In DeLeon and Marcelo Sarvas, an offseason addition from the Colorado Rapids, United boasts a pair of central midfielders known for their attacking tendencies. When partnered with Sarvas, as he was in the first leg against Queretaro, DeLeon knows the two must develop a defensive balance to avoid leaving the back line exposed.

DeLeon also has taken time to hone his awareness in the middle, with players coming at him from every direction — a dynamic that wingers don’t have to deal with. But DeLeon’s physicality and skill on the ball have United intrigued by his potential once the wrinkles are ironed out.

“I like that he has the ability to drive out of the middle,” Olsen said. “His completion percentages are high, he’s able to play balls forward, his range of passing is good — he has all the qualities to succeed in that spot, but it’s going to take time.”

Added Sarvas: “He’s very strong. He can make the runs, he can track players and he can get involved. I think [the middle] is good for him.”

Following the offseason exits of Kitchen and Chris Pontius, DeLeon is United’s third-longest serving player. Between his veteran status in the locker room and increased on-the-field duties, DeLeon understands the responsibility he now shoulders.

“Being in the middle, you have to be more of a general as far as just getting people to move where you need them to move, whether to press, whether to stay,” DeLeon said. “There definitely is more of a leadership role.”

Yet, United knows the club must exude patience with DeLeon in central midfield. As United battles to stay alive in the Champions League on Tuesday and prepares for the team’s MLS opener Sunday at the L.A. Galaxy, there’s an acknowledgement that this is all a part of DeLeon’s learning curve.

“There are these little nuances in the center of the park that you have to pick up, on both sides of the ball and in transition,” Olsen said. “The games are going to be his teacher.”

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