TORONTO — Winger Nick DeLeon was one of several Toronto FC players to take their kids onto the field last Saturday for the anthems before facing the Chicago Fire.
It was an emotional first for DeLeon, who spent the first seven years of his MLS career at D.C. United before joining Toronto in December.
And it perhaps symbolized how he views Toronto these days.
"Feels like home," he said in an interview.
It will be home a little while longer after agreeing to a new contract that will keep him in Toronto through the 2021 season.
DeLeon, who made US$275,000 last season according to the MLS Players Association, found himself in MLS limbo after last season when D.C. United elected not to exercise his contract option. Toronto, looking for experienced help on the wing, was only too happy to pick the 28-year-old from Phoenix in the re-entry draft.
"(A) fantastic professional," said Toronto forward Jozy Altidore. "Takes cares of himself, takes care of his body. Every training 100 per cent. And he's a very good footballer, sees passes. I think he doesn't get enough credit for that.
"When you bring players like that into a group of already good footballers, they shine even brighter. I look for him to have a big year for us. I think he's already started on the right foot."
DeLeon has started all four league games for Toronto, with one goal and three assists. Unlike D.C. United, Toronto coach Greg Vanney has kept him on the wing — allowing DeLeon to flex his attacking muscles again.
In Washington, DeLeon's versatility worked against him as he played on the wing, in central midfield and at fullback.
"It was hard for me to get into a rhythm but I gave it my all ... But at heart, I'm a winger," he said. "I like to get the ball, run at guys, whip balls in. I like to create. I don't know, I just had a hard time figuring out how to do that from so many different positions."
"Playing defence, I kind of lost that attacking juice that made me who I was," he added.
Away from the pitch, DeLeon is the epitome of chill. He and wife Jordan, two-year-old daughter Marlee, one-year-old son Milo and their two dogs have settled north of the city.
"We like our space," said DeLeon.
He believes the move to Toronto has re-energized him.
"I felt like I got too comfortable, too complacent and I wasn't pushing myself like I know I should be," he said. "You're only in this career for a very short amount of time, so you have to make the best of it. That's why I think this move came at the right time."
DeLeon left his old club after an emotional playoff loss to Columbus that saw him score a stunning volley in extra time to send the game to a penalty shootout. After Zack Steffen stopped penalties from Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, DeLeon sent his penalty attempt over the crossbar and Columbus won the knockout-round game.
"Those next couple of days I was kind of in a dark place, to say the least," he said with a laugh. "It was an emotional roller-coaster. It was like an ultimate high to ultimate low. But now I'm over it. PKs are part of the game."
Last season proved to be a tough one for DeLeon, who played just 15 games due to a knee injury that required surgery after rest and rehab failed.
But it also allowed him to play alongside Rooney at D.C. United's new Audi Field home. DeLeon grew up a Manchester United fan, watching Rooney.
"When I first saw him, there's that little boy inside me that was a little giddy. But once you got to know him he's just a normal guy, humble guy and on the field he's a fierce goal-scorer. Getting to play with him for the few games that I did was pretty special."
At D.C. United, DeLeon earned a reputation as a player who likes the big moment. As a rookie, his 88th-minute goal in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal dispatched the New York Red Bulls.
"I feel like that's when I'm at my best," he said. "I'll thrive under big-pressure situations. I can't explain how. It's just I like the moment."
DeLeon comes from soccer bloodlines. His father Leroy played internationally for Trinidad and Tobago with club stints in the '70s with the NASL's Washington Diplomats and San Jose Earthquakes among other teams.
"He was a talent," said DeLeon.
"For me, it was kind of cool because he got to play at RFK Stadium (the former home of D.C. United). For me to kind of go full circle and play there was a special moment, for sure."
His parents divorced when Nick was 14 and his father returned to Trinidad. His sister has represented Trinidad at the youth level.
DeLeon has yet to go to Trinidad although he says it's on his bucket list. "I want to experience his lifestyle, his culture."
He and his father are close these days although he acknowledges it was not always that way after the divorce.
"There was probably some resentment there," he said. "But as you get older, you realize there are two sides ... Instead of just holding onto that — that stuff can kind of eat you up inside — you've just got to let it go or talk it out. Now me and my dad are in a great place."
DeLeon's life journey is inked on his skin, thanks to a variety of tattoos.
Stay Hungry, Stay Humble adorns the inside of his right arm. His hometown of Phoenix is immortalized with 602 (the Phoenix area code) on his right shoulder.
UNLV Rebels and Louisville — he switched schools, following his head coach — are honoured, as is D.C. United on his bicep.
"There will be a TFC one coming soon," DeLeon promised.
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