The D.C. United winger has had a spring in his step during preseason after struggling last year.CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nick DeLeon understands how crucial 2014 is for his career trajectory. As a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2012, the D.C. United winger was a breakout star thanks to some rampaging runs and clutch scoring. But nagging injuries and sluggish form left DeLeon mired in a sophomore slump last season.
So was 2013 an aberration or a sign of things to come? DeLeon is determined to make sure it's the former.
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After compiling eight goals and four assists in 2012 between the regular season and playoffs, DeLeon notched just two goals and one assist last season. A hamstring injury early in the campaign killed the momentum he built out of preseason, and DeLeon never truly got back on track.
Now that DeLeon has used the offseason to rest and recharge, the player finally feels like he's back at 100 percent as he heads into the new season.
"That was big," he said. "I took a lot of time in the offseason to get my body right so I won't have those issues this year. Coming into this preseason, I felt really good."
As United picked up a 2-0 win against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday to open the Carolina Challenge Cup, DeLeon was perhaps the most active player on the field. Running at defenders on the left flank, he showed the bursts of speed that came in abundance as a rookie but with rarity last year. And it was DeLeon who set up United's first goal of the preseason, hitting the cross that deflected off David Horst for an own goal.
In a testament to DeLeon's ceiling, United coach Ben Olsen liked what he saw out of the 23-year-old Saturday yet still identified room for growth.
"He had a pretty good day," Olsen said. "I wouldn't say it was his best day — he complicated things at times, to be honest, and he'll tell you that as well."
While DeLeon has mostly played on the right since midway through his rookie season, he looked comfortable Saturday on the left flank he occupied during the opening months of his career. With incumbent left winger Chris Pontius (currently sidelined by a hamstring injury) possessing the versatility to play forward, DeLeon could return to the position with regularity in 2014.
As DeLeon said, "I've talked to Benny too, and I think he's thinking about me out (left)."
Also bolstering DeLeon after United's 3-24-7 season should be the increased talent to play off, with attacking fullbacks Sean Franklin and Cristian Fernandez offering overlapping options wide and strikers Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola providing targets up top.
"It was a difficult year. It was what it what it was," DeLeon said. "I think our coaching staff and our general manager have made some good moves in the offseason, and the talent they've brought in has honestly made me just forget about last year. With the talent we have this year, I can guarantee you we're not going to have another year like that."