Toronto FC is heading to its third MLS Cup final in four seasons thanks to an unlikely hero: Nick DeLeon.
One year ago, DeLeon hung his head after missing a penalty that resulted in D.C. United’s elimination from the MLS Cup playoffs. He saw his playing time go down as a result of injuries and increased spending on new players. It felt like he had committed his last act as a significant MLS contributor, and that he would be remembered more for missed opportunities than the things he accomplished.
Ask any of DeLeon’s former teammates about him and they’ll tell you he does things on the training pitch that they’ve only seen from a tiny handful of other players. Few American pros have ever been able to match him on pure technical skill. But since his six-goal, four-assist rookie season, that skill has rarely translated into production on the pitch.
When a player with elite talent fails to make the most of it, they are usually at fault to some degree. I’m sure DeLeon can tell you what he did wrong when he was younger, and he probably probably made other mistakes that he doesn’t understand. But for several years, DeLeon was also held back by factors beyond his control.
DeLeon played on two of the absolute worst teams in MLS history in 2013 and 2017. Even when D.C. United was able to grind its way to playoff appearances during DeLeon’s time with the club, it did so by playing a defensive, direct style that did not make the most of DeLeon’s skills. United ownership was cheap before it opened Audi Field, and most of the decent players it could attract were low-skill, try-hard types. Head coach Ben Olsen set up his team to maximize their skills accordingly, to the detriment of DeLeon’s career.
By the time United started signing better players and playing more progressive soccer, knee injuries slowed down DeLeon, a player who never had much pace to begin with. The team let him go because of those injuries.
Ahead of the 2019 season, he was picked up by Toronto, who thought he was worth a look on a no-risk, short-term deal. It only took four games for DeLeon to impress the club enough to hand him a three-year contract. He played 1,968 minutes this season, more than he racked up in each of the past two seasons. DeLeon also scored six goals, the most since his rookie year.
Two weeks ago, DeLeon got the chance to stick it to his old team in the playoffs, scoring an absolute stunner to put Toronto up 5-1 on D.C. United. He broke an unwritten rule of etiquette and celebrated. D.C. United fans, well aware of the years of awful management he battled, didn’t mind at all.
That goal, as great as it was, merely padded an already out-of-hand scoreline. But on Wednesday night, he got the chance to be the difference maker. With his team tied 1-1 against Atlanta United, on the road and struggling to withstand pressure against a heavily favored team, DeLeon did this.
These were the plays that people who saw DeLeon in training knew he was capable of making. They were the plays that everyone thought he would regularly make after his excellent rookie season. And now DeLeon will get to play in an MLS Cup final, knowing he made the decisive play.
I don’t know what DeLeon’s career might have been like if he had started somewhere else. I don’t know the degree to which his struggles are his own fault or D.C. United’s. I’m just happy that he can now be remembered for something exceptional instead of his mistakes. It took a while, but DeLeon finally got the chance to show us what he can do.