DeLeon squares off with ROY rival candidate

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DeLeon squares off with ROY rival candidate

There's plenty on the line tonight when D.C. United and the Chicago Fire take the field for their final match of the regular season.  First and foremost: playoff seeding.  But beyond the overarching competition for second place in the Eastern Conference is an a equally fierce, and perhaps more colorful campaign for Rookie of the Year honors.  

Saturday evening's showdown in the Windy City will pit DCU rookie Nick DeLeon against Fire freshman Austin Berry.  The two are familiar foes.  Or perhaps more accurately, they're long-time friends, former teammates and roommates, turned rivals.  

"It's crazy," said DeLeon of the ROY competiton.  "Both coming from Louisville, it's just a reflection of how successful the program has become with Ken Lolla and Mario Sanchez. It's just a product of what they've put together there."

DeLeon, who jumped off to a fast start, scoring a goal in his 16-minute debut back in March and notching three goals and three assists before April was over, has experienced a historic yet inconsistent first year.

"It's been an up and down and then up again season for Nick," said DCU head coach Ben Olsen.  "He started off on fire and then hit the rookie wall, so to speak and he hit it for a while."

DeLeon suffered a hamstring injury in May that left him sidelined for four matches.  His minutes waned but his confidence never wavered.  

"As a rookie you hit a wall," explained United captain Chris Pontius.  "I hit it my rookie year and it's about how you respond and overcome it.  I think Nick did a great job of that.  As you can see in the last few games he's been phenomenal. I think that's a credit to Benny and the coaching staff for keeping him on track and more so a credit to Nick for being mentally strong and overcoming it."

"I think it's the mental toughness he had to keep going, keep fighting and keep pushing," said DCU defender Brandon McDonald.  "Obviously his body was tired, making that transition from college to the professional level isn't easy.  He did it and he came back at the right time."

The adjustment from the two-month college season to the eight-month professional season is anything but easy and affects every rookie differently. 

"I always joke that Perry Kitchen hit it for ten minutes and Nick hit it for a good month, month and a half where he just wasn't himself," said Olsen.  "Then he snapped out of it and since then he's been back to the Nick DeLeon that we saw earlier in the season."

DeLeon finally broke his scoring drought in August as he tallied D.C.'s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Kansas City.  He grabbed another goal later that month and last week set a club record when he notched his sixth goal of the season at home against the Crew.

"It was probably the easiest I'll score this year," DeLeon said while smiling sheepishly about the Leonard Pajoy rebound he tapped home from the goal mouth.

That goal set a new D.C. United club record for most goals scored by a rookie, besting previous record-holders Santino Quaranta, Freddy Adu and Andy Najar.  

"I thought he beat my record!" Olsen exclaimed in disbelief when asked about DeLeon's accomplishment.  The head coach seemed to have been stewing over this distinction since Saturday.  "But didn't I have five goals my rookie year?!" he yelled to United Media Relations Manager Ryan Tronovitch, who stood by smiling.  "Check on that --I think I had five!"

Olsen had four as 1998's Rookie of the Year.

University of Louisville men's head soccer coach Ken Lolla isn't surprised at all by DeLeon's productive first season.  "We felt like of the guys we had that he was the one who was prepared physically, technically and maturity-wise to have the impact coming out."

DeLeon has made 27 appearances for the Black and Red this year, starting in 24 of them.  

"He has a disposition about him, a composure on the field that he doesn't get rattled," said Lolla.  "For a rookie to step in and pull not only the minutes he's pulled and have the impact he's had is a strong indication that he's grown a confident self image and feels he can handle the situations in front of him."

"You see the numbers that he's had but it's been more than numbers," said Pontius.  "His work has been great for us, he's a real threat to defenders.  I don't think anyone wants Nick around one-on-one."

And that's the part of his game DeLeon likes best. As the midfielder says in a recent viral video exchange between D. C. United and Chicago, he "eats defenders for breakfast." 

"I like to go at defenders.  I like to go one v. one.  When I say 'I eat defenders for breakfast' it means skin 'em, take them one v. one and either get a cross or shot off or just create something."

DeLeon's questionable breakfast choices became available for public consumption after Chicago's sponsor, Quaker Oats, featured Berry on a Life cereal box.  DCU's creative team fired back with a smiling DeLeon mowing down on a bowl of Life while proclaiming the catchy slogan. 

"It's fun to banter back and forth and a little trash talk here and there makes it fun," explained DeLeon. 

Chicago's creative team responded with this gem, in which Berry does his best impression of his former U of L teammate. 

"I called him immediately after I saw it just to talk a little stuff and congratulate him because it was a funny video," said DeLeon.  "Overall it just intensifies this next game and puts a lot of meaning on it for this final push."

Were ROY determined by witty retorts and highlight reels alone, Lolla admits DCU would have the edge, but the Cardinals coach doesn't take sides when it comes to accolades for his former players. 

"They've each had an impact on the success of their teams and they're both making the the playoffs so I think that's significant. I'm not going to put it on the line and vote for either one, I think they're both deserving."

But DeLeon's current coach doesn't shy away from taking sides. 

"I think Nick's had a very good year but I'm biased, right?" Olsen laughed. 

As much as he admitted he's enjoyed the back and forth, DeLeon assured that there'd be no video retort on his end. 

"I'll end it with play. I'm just going to go out there and give it everything I have and show everybody that way."

And what better way to sway voters than going up against your biggest rival with playoff positioning on the line?

Hope Solo criticizes 'cowardly' Swedish team following Olympic loss

Hope Solo criticizes 'cowardly' Swedish team following Olympic loss

The U.S. Women's Soccer Team was bounced from the Olympic Tournament on Friday following a shocking 1-1 shootout loss to Sweden.

The USWNT had to once again rally back from 1-0 — as they did against Colombia — with Alex Morgan scoring an equalizer in the 78th minute.

After 30 minutes fo scoreless extra time, the game went to penalty kicks. Morgan and Christen Press missed their attempts, and Hope Solo was unable to stop Lisa Dahlkvist's attempt, snapping the USWNT's 14-game Olympic win streak. It was also the first time the USWNT did not advance to the Olympic gold medal games.

Solo, who has been the focal point of the USWNT's time in Rio due to the chants of "Zika" lobbed her way in the tournament opener, along with her subpar performance in the 2-2 draw against Colombia, once again made headlines following the shocking loss.

While Solo was lauded for the poise she showed following the major gaffe in the Colombia game, she had some choice words for the Swedish team following the loss on Friday.

Solo has never been one to mince words.  

While it was not particularly clear that the Swedish side was playing dirty, Sweden did have 15 penalties to the United States too. The United States outshot Sweden 27-6 and had six shots on goal to Sweden's two. But despite the stat discrepancy, Sweden packed their defense in, forcing the United States to take an increased number of shots from outside. Sweden also did a tremendous job of counter-attacking with deep balls, which the side — coached by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage — a bevy of uneven scoring chances.

When asked about her "coward" comment, Solo provided clearer detail.

"Sweden dropped off," she said to reporters after the game. "They didn't want to play. They didn't want to pass the ball. They didn't want to play great soccer. It was a combative game, a physical game. Exactly what their game plan was. They dropped into a 50. They didn't try and press. They didn't want to open the game. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. i don't think they're going to make it far in the tournament. I think it was very cowardly.

"But they won. They're moving on, and we're going home."

Solo then took to Twitter to clarify her comments.

But the outcome remains the same: A stunning loss before the medal round, and to make matters worse, the result will be overshadowed by critical comments.

RELATED: WOULD THIS TEAM OF MARYLAND NATIVES WIN OLYMPIC GOLD?

U.S. women suffer shocking Olympic elimination in shootout loss to Sweden

U.S. women suffer shocking Olympic elimination in shootout loss to Sweden

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — The three-time defending champion U.S. women's national team will miss the Olympic final for the first time after being ousted by Sweden on penalties following a 1-1 draw in the quarterfinals on Friday.

Tied after three rounds in the shootout, Sweden captain Caroline Seger beat Hope Solo and Christen Press' attempt against Hedvig Lindhal went over the net. With the next kick, Lisa Dahlkvist beat an outstretched Solo for the win.

RELATED: HOPE SOLO CRITICIZES "COWARDLY" SWEDISH TEAM AFTER LOSS

As Sweden celebrated, U.S. captain Carli Lloyd crouched on the field at Mane Garrincha Stadium. It was the first time that an Olympic women's match had gone to penalties.

It was the earliest the United States had ever been eliminated from the Olympics since women's soccer became a sport in 1996.

After a scoreless first half, Stina Blackstenius scored in the 61st minute to give Sweden a 1-0 lead.

Alex Morgan scored the equalizer in the 78th and the match went to extra time. Lloyd had a header called back for offside in the 115th minute, and Lotta Schelin was offside on her attempt against Solo a minute later -- although replays appeared to show otherwise.

The reigning World Cup champions, who are also four-time Olympic champions, had not dropped a match this year. But it Sweden that will play either Australia or host Brazil in the semifinals.

Blackstenius, who came in as a substitute in the first half, broke away and shook off defender Julie Johnston to beat Solo and give Sweden the lead. It was just her second international goal.

Sweden's coach, Pia Sundhage, high-fived her assistants on the bench. Sundhage coached the U.S. team for five years and led the squad to gold medals in both Beijing and London.

The United States got the equalizer with Morgan's shot that bounced off a Sweden defender. It was Morgan's team-leading 13th goal of the year. Lloyd nearly put the United States ahead in the 85th but her kick to the far corner went just wide.

The Americans won their first two matches in Brazil before a surprising 2-2 draw in Manaus against Colombia, which had already been eliminated.

Johnston returned to the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a groin injury and coach Jill Ellis played all her regular starters after rotating and resting many against Colombia in the heat and humidity of the Amazon. Megan Rapinoe, who started against Colombia after missing more than eight months after right knee surgery, was on the bench but came on as a substitute in the second half.

Press replaced Rapinoe in the extra period.

Sweden had won only five matches against the United States. The two teams played to a scoreless draw at last year's World Cup. The last time the two teams met in the Olympics was at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Sundhage was a player on the Sweden team that fell 2-1 to the Americans.

Ranked sixth in the world, Sweden had struggled in its Olympic group with a 5-1 loss to host Brazil and finished 1-1-1.

Lloyd buried her head in her hands early in the second half after her free kick was off the mark. Just moments later, she had another that was off-target, too. The United States struggled to finish throughout the match.

The crowd at Mane Garrincha Stadium in was sparse at the start of the match and never extended much past the lower bowl of the massive 72,000-seat stadium that was reconstructed and expanded for the men's 2014 World Cup.

The fans that were there continued to jeer Solo with shouts of "Zika!" everytime she touched the ball. The fans have taunted her since the opening match in Brazil because of her posts on social media about the virus.

Field condition concerning ahead of USWNT quarterfinal match with Sweden

Field condition concerning ahead of USWNT quarterfinal match with Sweden

The United States is set to play Sweden on Friday in the quarterfinal round of the women’s soccer tournament at the Rio Olympics. The U.S. – fresh off winning their group – is one victory away from advancing to the medal round.

The match will be played at noon ET on NBCSN and while both teams hope to be prepared for Friday’s win-or-go-home affair, the field at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha does not appear to be ready for the rigors of elimination soccer.

Friday’s game will be the ninth Olympic match played at Brasilia’s primary stadium. The stadium, named after Brazilian soccer legend Garrincha, hosted a men’s soccer doubleheader (Mexico-South Korea and Argentina-Honduras) on Wednesday night. 

According to a report in the Brazilian publication oLiberal, ‘emergency’ work was done on the field in the three weeks leading up to the Olympics. The Brazilian men’s team opener their Olympic campaign in Brasilia with a scoreless draw against South Africa. 

A men’s quarterfinal between Portugal and Germany is scheduled for Saturday at the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the U.S. vs. Sweden women’s game.