For D.C. United rookie Nick DeLeon, RFK Stadium has a special history


Nick DeLeon, middle, is a rookie midfielder with D.C. United. He was a first-round draft pick from Louisville. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Leroy DeLeon is planning to visit Washington soon for two reunions: one with a city, the other with his son.

The 64-year-old Trinidadian played for the Washington Darts and later the Diplomats in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s. He has been back on a few occasions since but can’t recall the last time he stepped foot inside RFK Stadium.

There’s good reason to visit now. Some 35 years since he last played at RFK, DeLeon will take a seat inside the crusty structure in the next month or two and watch his son, Nick DeLeon, run the flanks for D.C. United.

“I hope he performs as good as I did,” Leroy said with a chuckle.

Leroy hasn’t seen Nick, 22, play in person in many years. A divorce and return to Trinidad and Tobago created a gulf between father and son. As the years passed — Leroy coached youth soccer in his homeland while Nick excelled in the University of Louisville’s midfield and became United’s first-round draft pick last winter — they grew further apart.

Upon arrival in Washington for preseason camp, Nick was unaware his father had played in the same stadium. “I was at home or college and he was in Trinidad,” he said. “We just didn’t talk much.”

Nick’s move to the pro ranks has helped repair the relationship. They speak by phone regularly, Leroy offering guidance and Nick providing updates.

“He reiterates that I need to play with confidence and play simple,” Nick said. “Once you feel it, go at the defenders, don’t be worried whether you beat them, just keep going and play your game. He preaches it.”

Attacking prowess runs in the family.

Leroy was a swift attacker during a 15-year U.S. career – outdoor leagues and then indoor circuits — that took him to New York, Washington, Miami, San Jose, Seattle, Detroit and Phoenix.

Nick’s motor purrs just the same. He utilizes speed and cunning to manufacture scoring opportunities. Last Saturday, he broke out of a mid-season rut with a dynamic run that led to Chris Pontius’s goal early in the second half of a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew.

DeLeon got off to a blazing start this season, scoring 13 minutes into his pro debut. He started the next eight league matches and recorded two goals and three assists to become the early favorite in the MLS rookie of the year race.

A hamstring injury stunted his progression and, upon returning, he struggled to regain his influential form — a common setback for rookies accustomed to short college seasons.

“We all went through it,” said Pontius, a fourth-year pro. “Nick was no exception, but he found his way back.”

With Saturday’s game-altering move, DeLeon seems to have busted through the rookie wall.

“It’s not where I want to be, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I’m happy it’s coming around right now. It’s a good time” heading into the final two-plus months of the regular season.

Nick hopes to replicate his father’s career, one that began as part of the first wave of U.S. soccer imports in the late 1960s. After two seasons with the New York Generals, Leroy scored 23 goals in 44 matches with the Washington Darts, who played at Catholic University before moving to Miami.

From 1974 until early '77, he was with the Diplomats, scoring 18 goals in 50 appearances. “Beautiful times in Washington,” he said.

The Dips traded him to the San Jose Earthquakes, where he played two seasons. While living in the Bay Area, he said he worked as a junior engineer at a start-up company called Apple. “Probably should have kept that job,” he said.

He capped his career scoring bundles of goals for the Phoenix Inferno in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

Leroy, a longtime member of Trinidad and Tobago’s national team and 2008 inductee in the nation’s sports hall of fame, settled in Arizona and entered coaching. Among his pupils was Robbie Findley, a 2006 U.S. World Cup forward who plays for England’s Nottingham Forest.

He didn’t, however, coach his son. “Nick always had great talent, but I was too critical,” Leroy admitted. “He wanted to play the way he wanted to and that drove me nuts. I backed off.”

When Nick was a high school freshman, his parents divorced, and soon Leroy was back in Trinidad.

“They weren’t close,” said United midfielder Danny Cruz, DeLeon’s longtime friend. Cruz had a similar divide with his father, a U.S. Army soldier who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

“As we’ve gotten older, it’s almost the exact same transition: Things happened and we can’t continue to act like children,” Cruz said. “Now he’s close to him. Every boy needs that.”

DeLeon and Cruz are planning to travel to Trinidad during the offseason. Despite family roots, Nick has never been there. His sister, Jessica, a sophomore midfielder at Arizona State, has represented Trinidad at the under-17 level.

For now, Nick will await his father’s visit next month.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “It’s been so long. I miss the guy.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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