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Player feature: Chris Pontius

A focus on detail, off-field priorities

Chris Pontius has grown accustomed to making the big play in 2012.

His penchant for the dramatic began on a road trip to New England, where Pontius – brought on as second-half substitute – scored an 81st minute game-winner in a 2-1 victory over the Revolution. Eight days later, the Californian ripped off a hat trick as D.C. United thrashed the New York Red Bulls here at RFK Stadium. A 78th minute goal in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia in mid-June further established Pontius as the Black-and-Red’s premier offensive threat.

But according to Pontius, none of the massive moments the he’s produced this season would have been possible without a keen dedication to the smaller details of his craft.

“It’s just the little things,” Pontius explains when asked what has propelled him to a career-high nine goals with still three months to play in the MLS season. “It’s easy when you are feeling good to skip an exercise but I’ve been making sure I’ve been doing everything. You start to get more of a sense of your body, and what foods make you perform at your best and weightlifting daily. I’ve focused on every little detail this year and it has started to translate to on-the-field success.”

After turning 25 in May, Pontius joked that he was ‘getting old’. While the comments were made mostly in jest, Pontius readily acknowledges that an increase in maturity has been the driving force behind his renewed off-field approach.

His desire to stay healthy is also born of the frustration Pontius endured during each of the last two years. A recurring hamstring injury cut short his 2010 campaign, and a broken leg did the same late in 2011. Beyond the adjustments in diet and weight-room workouts, a steady diet of yoga and Pilates are now a part of his regular routine.

“When you sit out from an injury you really get to realize how much you miss the game and how much of a blessing it is to be in our position,” says Pontius. “I don’t take anything for granted. You hear people say every game could be your last and you’ve seen it happen to guy’s careers. I don’t want to look back when I’m older and say I coulda-woulda-shoulda.”

While his scoring output has drawn attention around the league, and saw him earn MLS all-star honors for the first time, Pontius’ coaching staff is hailing a less glamorous addition to the midfielder’s repertoire as a major catalyst behind his success. Long known for his attacking skills, Pontius has now become one of D.C.’s most dogged defenders in midfield.

His two-way mentality was never more evident than during one of United’s worst performances of the year.

“In games like Houston, where it is really tough, you get to look around the field who is really sticking in it,” recalled player/coach Josh Wolff. “You know you are probably done for the night, but he is out there fighting all over the field. Maybe he is not as vocal, but leading by example is just as important as leading with a voice.”

“It’s a work in progress,” Pontius admitted of his defensive game. “If you want to be one of the top midfielders you have to be a two-way player. Everyone knows that I like to go forward, and I still think that is my strength, but if you want to keep improving you have to go both ways.”

Wolff, who pulls double-duty as both player and coach, has been another pivotal factor in Pontius’ breakout season. Wolff’s credentials are impeccable: The two-time World Cup veteran has 52 national team caps and 80 career MLS goals on a resume that includes a two-year stint with German club 1860 Munich. The 35-year-old knows exactly what it takes to succeed on the international level – and believes Pontius is on the verge of a major breakthrough.

“When you talk about getting to the international scene, that’s what its about. - the complete package,” noted Wolff. “Without a doubt, he has been putting in the work. I think his production and quality this year have been there. I don’t think there is any doubt that he has more than enough reason to be called into camps.”

In light of his recent success, many have lined up to champion Pontius’ national team case. Talented attacking players with game-breaking one-on-one ability don’t grow on trees in the United States, and both Wolff and D.C. head coach Ben Olsen have used the word ‘unique’ to describe Pontius’ offensive skill set.

In a day and age where players often lobby for themselves, Pontius won’t be joining the crowd. Reporters have given him countless opportunities in recent weeks to state his case publicly, but Pontius politely refuses.

“The stance I’ve always taken is if I take care of business with DC hopefully the call will come and that’s the stance I’ll take still,” he said during a recent interview here at RFK. “It’s my stance because the only thing that I can control is my play with DC. Obviously I want to be called in, I think it would be an honor. But that is out of my hands beyond my play with DC. Right now it’s about getting this team to playoffs. That’s where my mindset is.”

This article was originally posted in the August 4 issue of the Matchday Program.