Let’s face it. The early days into the new year were not bright for Toronto FC.
Stalwart Sebastian Giovinco had sought pastures new leaving TFC fans without a face of their franchise. A premature exit from the Concacaf Champions League at the hands of obscure Panamian side Independiente followed, leaving BMO Field’s faithful concerned.
A shaky Laurent Ciman. Terrence Boyd. The new faces brought in prior to the start of the season were not sparking any type of enthusiasm in the TFC world, not even highly-experienced midfielder Nick DeLeon.
But over the course of the year, stories are made.
Because before DeLeon became the big-moment-player that he is in Toronto, the former D.C. United midfielder was the player who missed the penalty that cost his former club the opportunity to progress in the post-season in 2018.
But in 2019, his story took a different turn, and what a turn we must say.
After the 2018 fiasco, Toronto FC needed strong personalities and versatile players to provide depth and improve the roster ahead of the new campaign.
It was imperative for Greg Vanney to have more ammunition in his side in order to keep the club competitive and on track to reach the post-season for fourth time in five years. According to the club administration, DeLeon fell under that category of players, as the 29-year-old was highly regarded in Major League Soccer given his track record.
With over 200 appearances for D.C. United, DeLeon had proven he was capable of playing a crucial role in MLS. Throughout his years in the league, he covered every position on both flanks and centrally, highlighting his versatile defensive and offensive abilities.
However, statistically that did not reflect his quality and maybe that was a concern for the TFC fans prior DeLeon penning a deal with the 2017 MLS Cup champions. In 203 games with D.C. United, DeLeon had scored only 19 times, while chalking up 13 assists in the process. Would you be able to tell now?
Because at Toronto FC, that has completely changed. Heading into the MLS Cup, DeLeon has 10 goals and three assists in 38 appearances.
Selected in the Re-Entry Draft last December, DeLeon’s acquisition seemed to be a bit overlooked. Nevertheless, then TFC Vice-President Tim Bezbatchenko underlined the importance of the 29-year-old’s arrival at the time.
“Nick is a veteran player that has experience both playing as an attacking winger and also as a defender,” said Bezbatchenko. “His versatility will be a welcomed addition to our club.”
While Toronto FC figured out their reinforcement signings to replace the likes of Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco, DeLeon was immediately handed a starting debut on Opening Day of the new MLS season. Vanney’s clan headed to Philadelphia to take on the Union in what was expected to be a very tough game.
Yet, Toronto FC cruised to a 3-1 victory with DeLeon finding his name among the goal scorers, playing as an attacking midfielder. Four straight 90-minute performances followed as Vanney started to rely heavily on the versatile player who was then positioned mainly as a right midfielder.
Even when eventual TAM signings Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo arrived, DeLeon shifted to the bench — willing to fill whatever role coach Greg Vanney asked of his Swiss army knife. If you can recall, DeLeon recently filled in at fullback for the Reds during their current 13-match unbeaten run in MLS action.
And in the post-season, Toronto’s No. 18 has caught fire — igniting the Reds in the process with two prolific goals and an assist in three games. Also impressive was his stat sheet against Atlanta United with DeLeon scoring the winner, having three successful dribbles in four attempts, winning six of his eight duels in just 36 minutes.
Echoing the positive thoughts about DeLeon was skipper Michael Bradley, who heaped praise on his teammate after the stunning 2-1 victory at the Mercedez-Benz Arena.
“Nick (DeLeon) has been such an important guy for us as well,” Bradley told the journalists after the Eastern Conference Final.“He came into our group and he’s such a good— he’s been such a good addition to our team [...]. He’s all about the group, whether he is a starter, whether he is a reserve, and you can never have enough of those guys.”
Atlanta United performance
Taking into account the Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United, DeLeon was crucial in the 36 minutes he played as Vanney underlined post-match.
“But we needed some fresh legs up top and Nick [DeLeon] is, you know, I define him as a runner, a guy who can get out in the open space,” said Vanney. “He can try to hold up the ball with some movement and carry the ball a little bit to win some time; he can beat people on the dribble, and obviously, he’s scored some great goals for us like tonight and against D.C. — I think he is our third leading scorer.”
The veteran’s value can’t be underestimated — like many of Toronto FC’s older guys who have stepped up this post-season.
Meanwhile, heading into the Final, DeLeon looks pretty upbeat as he eyes another special night to wrap up what has been a transforming year for himself.
“It’s been an incredible journey—a lot of tough years, a lot of grinding and hard work,” DeLeon explained in training recently. “I think this is a kind of a reward, fulfilment, accumulation of a lot of hard work.
“I am blessed that this organization took a chance on me, had faith in me, and like you said, it’s been an incredible year.”