TORONTO — After three seasons, Nick DeLeon is set to say goodbye to Toronto.
The 31-year-old midfielder is out of contract with Toronto FC and looking to get back to his family. His wife Jordan, four-year-old son Milo and five-year-old daughter Marlee are in Arizona where they have had more of a family support system during the pandemic.
"I'm definitely going to play my free agency card. We'll just see what kind of interest is out there," DeLeon said. "But there's nothing concrete as of now. And yeah, I definitely have places I want to go, but I want to keep that close to the chest."
Toronto is not an option.
"I'm not coming back here next year. No chance. I need to get back to the States and be close to family after these last two years."
His family moved to the States last season with Toronto forced south of the border because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.
When the club returned to Toronto this July, DeLeon found himself living with some roommates in an Airbnb near TFC's north Toronto training centre.
"This season's probably been the most difficult of my career, I'll say that," he said. "And there's a lot of reasons way."
They included a coaching change and DeLeon seeing limited action. He calls it a "huge learning year."
"My family's my escape," he explained. "So I can come home and shut down soccer and be with my family. I didn't have my family and I wasn't playing. So it was a double whammy. It was tough."
He says he had to learn different ways to handle stress.
"My God, as far as mentally, I went through the wringer this year. I've never experienced anything like depression. Holy crap, this year, I'm glad it's almost over. We'll put it that way. It's been a hell of a year."
"Some days I could distract myself, some days I couldn't," he added.
DeLeon, who spent seven seasons at D.C. United before coming to Toronto via the re-entry draft in 2018, appeared in 16 regular-season games this year including just five starts. His 628 playing minutes were the lowest season total of his career.
Asked if he was given a reason for such limited playing time, DeLeon replied: "Not any good ones, I'll say that."
But he says he understands the club was looking ahead, knowing he would likely not be in their future plans.
While the versatile DeLeon scored just 10 times in his 74 regular-season and playoff appearances for Toronto, he came up big in October 2019 when his highlight-reel strike as a substitute at Mercedes-Benz Stadium moved TFC into the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years in a 2-1 win.
Taking a pass from Alejandro Pozuelo on the edge of the Atlanta penalty box. DeLeon did a 360 to distance himself from a pair of defenders and then hammered home a right-footed shot into the top corner.
DeLeon almost exited on another highlight-reel moment in Sunday's Canadian Championship final in Montreal. Coming off the bench again, he just missed getting to a long ball that dropped in the Montreal penalty box in the 90th minute. Montreal goalkeeper Sebastian Breza got a foot to it but Toronto's Ifunanyachi Achara drove the ball back in to Jordan Perruzza, whose shot bounced off the goalpost,
Toronto lost 1-0.
DeLeon signalled in March he had no plans to get the COVID vaccine, saying he shies away from drugs.
"That's my personal choice and that's the way I choose to live my life. And I will not change that for anybody," he said at the time. "I know who I am and I'm confident in it.''
He says not being vaccinated initially complicated life at the club.
"But that's because I let it. I let media and I let hype get into my head, like the majority of people. And it made life difficult. But once I kind of tuned that stuff out, it is what it is."
He had to keep a mask on all the time and get tested every other day. "Not that big a deal."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press