Pon­tius ready to pi­lot D.C. once more

Ahead of post­sea­son, United leader is fi­nally fully healthy

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

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.”

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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