Pontius ready to pilot D.C. once more
Ahead of postseason, United leader is finally fully healthy
D.C. United’s longevity in the MLS playoffs will hinge on several factors. Bill Hamid’s goalkeeping, Fabian Espindola’s playmaking, Chris Rolfe’s scoring touch and the back line’s structure are among many subplots on an overachieving team with a margin of error as thin as a dryer sheet.
But as the club hits the final two regular season matches, starting Sunday afternoon against the last-place Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium, another element could also help determine United’s path: midfielder Chris Pontius.
Fully healthy after another season scarred by injuries, the club’s longest-serving player submitted his most influential performance of the campaign two weeks ago during a 2-1 comeback victory against New York City FC.
Pontius did not score or record an assist, but he put his mark on the match with confident, effective runs. In the 73rd minute, his assertive possession and threatening shot from beyond the penalty area led to Espindola’s equalizer on the rebound.
Later, another drive from distance tested Josh Saunders. And then a central dash in stoppage time drew a free kick, resulting in Alvaro Saborio’s winning goal on a touch inside the six-yard box.
With the victory, United (1412-6) ended a six-game winless streak and clinched a postseason berth heading into a twoweek break.
“It was good for our spirits before the layoff,” Rolfe said. “If we had lost again or even tied that game, there would’ve been a lot more negativity around. But because of that win, it allowed us to look forward and progress instead of thinking we were continuing to regress.”
Pontius’s dynamics rekindled memories of 2012, when he was named to the Best XI all-league team at the end of the year.
“You are playing your best soccer when you are confident,” he said. “People underestimate how big that can be. Confidence is huge because your decisionmaking isn’t rushed, you see the game more clearly and the game slows down for you. Hopefully I can carry it into this game and into the playoffs, as well.”
Pontius, 28, missed all of June and July with a calf injury, the latest in a series of longterm setbacks cutting into a seven-year career. Upon his return, he was a second-half option in five of six league matches and a starter in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international competition in which Coach Ben Olsen relied primarily on reserves.
After starting against Montreal on Sept. 26, Pontius went the distance against NYCFC, his first full 90 minutes in league play since May 30.
“It was a big step,” Olsen said. “What he has been doing to help our group is running — flat-out running off the ball. Sometimes the simplest things in soccer can be the most dangerous because he was constantly threatening the back line with runs. He was constantly busy and moving.”
Primarily a left wing and occasionally a forward, Pontius appears to have become Olsen’s first choice on the right flank. He and right back Sean Franklin work well together, and Pontius’s prowess in the attack creates space for Rolfe, Espindola and Saborio.
“Whenever someone comes out of a little funk or returns from injury and regains form, the whole team builds confidence off it,” said Rolfe, the club’s top scorer with 10 goals. “He’s confident in what he can do, so [against NYCFC] he was taking the ball and going at guys using his speed and strength. He hasn’t done that for a long time.”
Ever since posting 12 goals and four assists in 2012, Pontius has battled injuries as much as opponents. In just 49 regular season appearances over three years, he has contributed five goals and four assists. This season, Pontius has scored twice: in March and May.
Hamstrings have caused the most problems over the years; this season, it was a calf.
“At times, it was frustrating,” Pontius said. “There were good days and bad days, but as long as those good days were coming, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The staff was patient with me, and hopefully we have everything sorted going into the big time of the year.”
D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire Where: RFK Stadium. When: 2 p.m. TV: Comcast SportsNet.
Records: United 14-12-6, 48 points; Fire 8-18-6, 30 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, Taylor Kemp; MFs Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Markus Halsti, Nick DeLeon; Fs Chris Rolfe, Fabian Espindola.
Chicago probable starters: GK Jon Busch; Ds Lovel Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz, Daneil Cyrus, Joevin Jones; MFs Patrick Nyarko, Michael Stephens, Razvan Cocis; David Accam; Fs Harry Shipp, Gilberto.
Chris Pontius missed all of June and July with a calf injury but now seems to be back to his old self.