Danny Cruz's normal goal celebration is to take off, arms spread wide, toward his team's bench.
After knocking home his first tally in a D.C. United uniform in last week's 4-1 win over FC Dallas, Cruz was on his way to the sideline, only to change his plans abruptly and turn back around toward teammate Nick DeLeon, who had fed the centering pass across the 6-yard box.
"A-Z, baby! A-Z!" DeLeon said as they pointed at one another and were engulfed in a team embrace, relishing an MLS goal created by two close friends who had met on a soccer field in Arizona more than five years before.
|Sounders at D.C. United|
|When » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.|
|Where » RFK Stadium|
"I kind of remembered where the ball came from, and it was kind of all surreal," Cruz said. "I wanted us to celebrate with each other, share it with him."
Reuniting in Washington this season, DeLeon and Cruz bring contrasting personalities into the locker room, and they have helped D.C. United (1-1-2) find its groove after a slow start.
After being left off the game day roster for United's season opener, the laid back but precocious DeLeon has transformed into an MLS rookie of the year candidate with two goals and an assist in the last three games. Cruz's technical abilities have matched the toughness and high energy of a player who starred at hockey and football before switching to soccer in high school.
"We don't care where they're from as long as they're playing well," United assistant coach Chad Ashton said.
Cruz and DeLeon were first brought together as teenagers with the Olympic Development Program in Arizona on a team coached by Mario Sanchez, who eventually lured them both to UNLV. Cruz, one year ahead of DeLeon, left with an MLS Generation Adidas contract in 2009, and DeLeon followed Sanchez to Louisville, where he spent his final two college seasons.
"I think they had a lot of mutual respect for each other and what their abilities were," said Sanchez, a Louisville assistant coach. "Everyone that plays with Danny respects how hard he works, and he's definitely a team guy. He's a good motivational guy for the team. And then Nick's the flip side -- quiet -- but his quality is clearly there for everyone to see. In different ways, they complement each other on the field and off the field."
They arrived in Washington in the opposite order. DeLeon joined D.C. United by way of the seventh pick in this year's draft, and Cruz came a week later after parting ways with the Houston Dynamo, for whom he had started in last year's MLS Cup final.
They harken back to how Ben Olsen and Josh Gros patrolled the flanks when D.C. United was last in the playoffs more than four years ago.
Cruz said his goal last week was better than his first MLS goal, which he scored against D.C. United when he was with Houston.
"Not to get all mushy," Cruz said. "The feeling that I had after scoring that goal and to be able to celebrate it with [DeLeon], it didn't compare."