United's Pontius shining in rookie role
WASHINGTON -- Even the most talented MLS rookies have to learn the ropes, pay their dues and win the respect of veteran teammates. This season, however, several newcomers around the league have vaulted the traditional learning curve, as the likes of Steve Zakuani, Stefan Frei, Kevin Alston and Rodney Wallace have made notable contributions and in some cases, even won starting roles over more experienced counterparts.But few rooks have made themselves as useful -- indispensible, even -- to their club as D.C. United's Chris Pontius, the jack-of-all-trades attacker who has played an integral part in the Black-and-Red's encouraging start to the 2009 campaign.In stark contrast to last season, D.C. boss Tom Soehn has reveled in the tactical freedom made possible by his versatile squad and Pontius has embodied that flexibility, logging time at striker and in every spot in the midfield. The Cal-Santa Barbara product has racked up four goals and two assists in league action, numbers that place him near the top of United's stat charts and make him a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors as well as MLS All-Star selection.But the manner in which he's accumulated those numbers might be more revealing: Pontius has often been a key cog in his team's in-game adjustments, shifting positions on the fly as conditions and matchups change, a role typically reserved for savvy veterans."His versatility continues to make us a better team," said Soehn earlier this month. "We can move him around in spots where we think he can help us."Pontius played on the left wing in D.C.'s season opener and scored a glittering goal against the LA Galaxy, but in subsequent games found himself roaming the right side, then up top, and later in an advanced playmaking role.While he's shown glimpses of top-caliber finishing, his fitness and tactical acumen have enabled Soehn to leave him on the field for 90 minutes as older teammates tire, a factor that led to several appearances in a holding midfield role -- a position which ranks as United's deepest."We tried him sitting in a little bit deeper, and see if he can understand that position and making sure he's one guy that looks to push up when we need to keep a little shape," said Soehn. "We talked a lot about it beforehand and he had some positive moments, and some things that now we can look at on tape and say 'Chris, this is what you need to do here.' But again, we've moved him around everywhere and he continues to adapt to wherever he has to play."Throughout it all, Pontius has happily accepted each new task with the same workmanlike approach that made him one of the top performers in NCAA competition last year."I'm used to it. I played a bunch of different roles in college, whether it was right back, D-mid, right half, left half -- I even played center back one game there," he said. "So I'm very comfortable with moving around, and it's helping me get on the field as a rookie. ... I think we're still searching for what kind of player they want me to be here. In college, in the last two years it was left winger. So I think it'll take a little bit of time for me to find my true position here or what the team needs me at this year."Thus far, his club's top priority has apparently been to keep him on the field as much as possible: Pontius has appeared in all 18 of United's matches, and his 1,231 minutes of league play rank fifth on the squad.He's proven adept at crafting useful partnerships with a wide range of teammates, most notably Santino Quaranta. The duo have combined on several pivotal goals this season and Quaranta -- who, despite his eight years of MLS experience, is only two years older than his rookie colleague -- offers warm praise for Pontius."I've said it from the beginning, Chris is a good player, he brings energy and he makes good runs," said Quaranta. "We do well with each other and it's always fun when I get to play with him. And I think it's a mutual thing -- we're on the same page with each other and it's going to be a good partnership for a while."MLS rookies accustomed to the shorter college season traditionally struggle at this time of year, especially with the league's draining midsummer stretch close at hand. But Soehn says Pontius, Wallace and company have shown no signs of losing momentum and with several D.C. veterans recently hit by muscle injuries, United will look to them for continued contributions in the months ahead."You know, I'm a rookie, I'm just looking to get time and stay on the field," Pontius said last week. "So I really don't care what position I'm playing here - as long as I'm on the field I'm happy."