When Nick DeLeon learned of Toronto FC’s opponent in the first round of the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs, he couldn’t help but feel excited.
DeLeon played for D.C. United for seven seasons and featured in 10 postseason matches for the Black-and-Red.
“I was pretty excited. I’m definitely looking forward to this game,” DeLeon told Pro Soccer USA. “There’s a lot of history there. When I saw that match-up line up, I’m not going to lie, I got pretty excited.”
Although DeLeon has a working knowledge of D.C.’s setup, he is not handing over much inside information on Ben Olsen’s side. He left that job to TFC’s scouting staff that already has a book on the opponent’s style of play.
“The scouting team here is pretty good and we play them and see them throughout the year,” DeLeon said. “We have a good idea of personnel and style and what we’re going to see this weekend. I don’t say too much because pretty much everything is covered by the rest of the staff. I haven’t really had to input too much on that.”
The 29-year-old was acquired by Toronto FC in the first stage of the 2018 Re-Entry Draft and he’s played in 32 games this year, contributing six goals and four assists.
TFC head coach Greg Vanney made the adjustment process easy with the distinct style he has installed in the club, and that has helped other acquisitions ease into the side.
“The transition was pretty smooth,” DeLeon said. “Greg is pretty open and up front about what he wants and how he wants it done. It takes time to build into the system because he’s got his vision of a specific system and a way he wants to play. That’s what you’re supposed to do over the course of the year is build those relationships and have that confidence in this system. I think we’ve done a really good job doing that.”
DeLeon added: “As you can see with the run at the end of the year, timing is crucial in this league and when you get hot, it can really make a difference. I would say the transition with me coming was smooth. We as players, coaching staff and an organization took our time getting things together, getting everyone on the same page, getting the new guys up to speed was pretty smooth just because of how clear Greg makes his points and sees us playing.”
The No. 4 seed in the East finished the regular season with a 10-game unbeaten streak and wins in its final three games at BMO Field.
The Reds earned a home game at BMO Field thanks to D.C.’s Decision Day draw with FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls’ loss to Montreal.
“We’re definitely thankful,” DeLeon said. “We knew we had to get a win to put ourselves in the best position. It was out of our hands and it was based on a couple other results that had to go our way and fortunately did. The guys are definitely buzzing and can’t stop talking about how BMO is going to be rocking.”
In the new one-game playoff format, home-field advantage means more, and TFC is ready for its boisterous support to back it.
“Home-field advantage in these one-off games is a big advantage,” DeLeon said. “When you’re playing at home and you have a crowd that is electric like that, you feel like you never get tired. It just feels like you’re running on endless battery supply. To feel that energy and get that at least once is huge. It’s huge for the momentum we have and to keep it rolling forward.”
It also allows the players and coaches to focus on tactics for a single matchup, instead of using strategy for a two-game series.
“Me personally, I like this. I don’t mind the one-off game,” DeLeon said. “It brings a lot more attention to detail in this game. There’s no more chess anymore. You have to give everything you have in this game otherwise you go home. For me, I like that format.”
Another advantage could be the team’s playoff experience. Eight players from TFC’s 2017 MLS Cup starting XI remain in the squad, and it added the experience of DeLeon and three-time MLS Cup winner Omar Gonzalez.
“One-hundred percent (it helps), but it’s a blend of everything,” DeLeon said. “You need the experience, you need the youth, the hunger, you need all of it because it is ultimately a team sport. I think having those pieces are instrumental because they can give guys a heads up for what they’re getting into and what these type of playoff games are. Honestly, playoff games aren’t always the prettiest soccer games. They’re very tense matches and people do not want to make mistakes. It’s a very tense, rigid match, especially to start. That’s where veteran leadership can really come in to bring those other guys up to speed to let them know what they are getting into.”