Pontius, Wallace continue to stand out
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United's 2009 campaign has featured a full gamut of highs and lows, from injury-time comebacks and international breakthroughs to humbling cup final defeats and home losing streaks, and a club-record number of draws that mostly fell somewhere in between.Through it all, two faces have been a surprisingly consistent presence, logging nearly 3,000 minutes of playing time in three different competitions, and in a variety of positional roles to boot. Not designated player Luciano Emilio, not star playmaker Christian Gomez, not even club captain and all-time MLS scoring champion Jaime Moreno or locker room leader Ben Olsen have earned such consistent time in so many situations.The players in question are rookies Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius. The pair have made a mockery of their age and relative inexperience with outstanding debut campaigns that bear out United's decision to select them with the club's first and second 2009 SuperDraft picks, respectively."I think this year -- through all its ups and downs, international games, important games, road games in Seattle-type atmospheres -- all those were situations that two young guys not only stepped up to, but also were able to learn from," said D.C. head coach Tom Soehn on Thursday. "With the year they've had, they have set themselves up to have great careers and they're continuing to make strides. We as an organization are real happy with the selections we made."Soehn has consistently shown faith in both young men, not only with starting nods but by handing them a wide range of tactical assignments. Wallace has played at left midfield, left back and holding midfielder this season while Pontius has been tasked to both flanks, up top as a striker and withdrawn forward, as well as in multiple roles in the center of the park. Only mainstays Bryan Namoff and Clyde Simms have racked up more minutes in league play than Pontius and Wallace.Both rookies earned spots in United's starting lineup on opening day against the LA Galaxy, and went on to feature prominently in U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League action despite the team's ample selection of veteran options."We're working hard and we're doing some really good things," said Wallace. "I think that hard work and just being hungry as rookies, that's keeping us on the field -- being competitors and just wanting it."The sum of their contributions look even more impressive given the manner in which they've encountered and surmounted the dreaded "rookie wall" during the dog days of summer, when bodies and minds accustomed to a three-month college season inevitably struggle to sustain pro-level effort and intensity. D.C.'s international commitments have only added to that burden."When you come in and you're talented, you kind of just work hard and good things happen early on. It's about getting through this part of the season as well, you know?" said teammate Santino Quaranta, United's top draft choice in 2001."Consistency's important when you're young. ... It's hard to go through a year after coming out of college or wherever, and getting through a 30-game season, with us especially, playing 40-some games or whatever."Pontius and Wallace labored through a few anonymous performances in August and early September, but hauled their way back into form as fall arrived. Pontius hasn't scored since an August 26 Champions League match against Toluca and remains frustrated not to have found the net more often, despite ranking fourth on the team in league goals scored -- yet those heightened expectations reveal just how rapidly he and his roommate Wallace have become central to their club's plans."Every striker or attacker goes through slumps where everything just seems to be going wrong," said Pontius. "I don't want to say we hit a rookie wall or anything like that, but I wasn't playing the best soccer I've played this year. I felt like I've gotten back into it a little bit more and it feels good to be playing up to the level I know I can play at."A point out of the final postseason berth with two matches remaining, D.C. faces an uphill battle to secure the playoff spot that could salvage what has been a frustrating season. But Quaranta, Soehn and the rest of the Black-and-Red believe one of their colleagues should lay claim to the MLS Rookie of the Year award, regardless of the MLS Cup trophy's final destination."It's almost tough having two from one team because they might actually draw interest away from each other," said Soehn. "But overall, both of them at certain parts of the season have done just tremendous jobs. So both of them have a case for Rookie of the Year."