Since a blazing start to his rookie season, Nick DeLeon has had a quiet presence with D.C. United. Playing time became harder to come by and production tailed off.
DeLeon worked back into Coach Ben Olsen’s good graces, and although he didn’t receive formal credit for D.C. United’s goal during a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew on Saturday night, the first-round draft pick created the opportunity with a spellbinding run that led to Chris Pontius’s 49th-minute strike.
“He made it happen,” said Pontius, who recorded his club-best 10th goal.
Most comfortable on the left wing, DeLeon started on the right side and altered the match shortly after intermission in front of 14,640 at RFK Stadium.
“He wasn’t really tuned into the game, but about 15 minutes before [the end of] the first half, he started to click again,” Olsen said. “I saw some of that early Nick DeLeon.”
DeLeon collected the ball in stride near the sideline in front of United’s bench.
“I just heard the sideline saying, ‘Go at him, go at him!’ ” he said. Left back Josh Williams “gave me a little space toward the line and I went at him.”
DeLeon beat Williams to the end line before cutting back and holding off the defender. He then spun in front of another obstacle before touching a cross in front of the net. Long Tan’s back-heeled effort was blocked by Sebastian Miranda, but Pontius bashed in the rebound.
The goal ended United’s scoreless streak at 229 minutes in MLS regular season play and helped extend its home winning streak to seven. It also stretched the unbeaten run at RFK to 10 and put United (11-7-3) back on course after three losses in four games.
The evening also put DeLeon back on course after a rough mid-season stretch.
“I felt like mentally I got into a little slump,” he said. “Recently I’ve been really focusing on amping my game up to the next level.”
It’s not unusual for rookies, who are accustomed to three-month college seasons, to reach a physical and mental barrier during the summer.
“They all hit it at different times, different lengths,” Olsen said. “It’s always a tough thing to manage as a coach. They need to play and they want to play and they want to force out of this funk that they’re in.”
DeLeon’s run was the special moment United needed to break down the Crew (8-8-4).
The lead held up, but just barely. The Crew pressed hard for the equalizer. United lost left back Daniel Woolard, its most consistent defender, to a head injury in the 62nd minute. Lewis Neal, a left-sided midfielder, was the only replacement option.
United was living dangerously until the end. Dilly Duka’s penetrating cross through the six-yard box went untouched and his clever footwork put United on its heels. Although Bill Hamid wasn’t asked to make any difficult saves, Columbus continued to threaten in the box and not allow United to close it out.
“Huge game for us,” Pontius said. “We need to make up some ground.”
United notes: Midfielder Andy Najar will return to Washington in the coming days following Honduras’s 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Brazil at the Olympics. Club officials will assess his fitness to determine availability for Saturday’s match at Kansas City. . . . United and the Crew will play a reserve division match at 11 a.m. Sunday at RFK’s training grounds. Admission is free. . . . Inductees into the Virginia-D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame were honored at halftime: Sonny Askew (Washington Diplomats, U.S. national team), Dante Washington (Radford, Olympics), Roy Gordon (Mary Washington coach), and youth coaches Bob Childs and Eric Baer.