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?