Feature: Chris Pontius
After two successive campaigns of heartbreaking, season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2011, a healthy Chris Pontius made the most of 2012 and showed why he’s one of the most exciting American players in the game. D.C. United’s longest-tenured player – a contributing member since 2009 – Pontius set career highs in 2012 in goals (12), games played (31), games started (26), minutes (2,339), shots (71) and shots on goal (29). Six of Pontius’ 12 strikes last season were game-winners, tied for the club record set in 1996 by Steve Rammel and a joint third-best in MLS in 2012. En route to his first MLS Best XI selection, Pontius competed in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game – a 3-2 win over 2012 European champions Chelsea FC – and was named the match’s MVP after scoring the equalizer and assisting on Eddie Johnson’s game-winner. In April, the North American Soccer Reporters unanimously selected Pontius as Player of the Week when he registered his first-ever hat trick, making him the only player to be a two-time unanimous selection. In addition to his four end-of-season club awards –Volkswagen MVP, Volkswagen Fans’ Choice Award, Volkswagen Goal of the Year and the Golden Boot – Pontius was a runner-up to Johnson in 2012’s MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.
Drafted out of the University of California – Santa Barbara as the seventh overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, Pontius made an immediate impact for the Black-and-Red in his inaugural season. Sixty-two minutes into the first game of 2009, Pontius tallied his first professional goal – a beautiful, bending strike to the far post – against the star-studded LA Galaxy. The former Gaucho notched eight goals and six assists across all competitions his first year, which led him to be the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up. In this particular category, Pontius was a D.C. United trendsetter of sorts, as the club saw three additional first-year players become MLS Rookie of the Year finalists in 2010 (Andy Najar, that year’s winner), 2011 (Perry Kitchen) and 2012 (Nick DeLeon).
“Oh, I was young, I was immature as a rookie,” said Pontius when asked about his personal evolution over the past four years. “I just think I’ve matured. The experience I’ve gotten in games is something that is invaluable and something I’ve taken along with me. How to manage games, my leadership qualities in the locker room, I think, has obviously grown and will continue to grow.”
2010 and 2011 proved to be more challenging – mentally and physically – for Pontius, as the Black-and-Red player suffered a hamstring injury in his second year and a fractured right tibia in his third season with the club. His 2011 campaign looked to be a breakout season for the midfielder, as he tallied seven goals and five assists in 25 games and was called into his second U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) camp. Unfortunately, a bone-crunching tackle in September 2011 cut Pontius’ season short, but true to character, Pontius bounced back better than ever in 2012. To reward the fruits of his labor, United re-signed Pontius to an extended contract last September.
“As an athlete, it’s kind of an emotional ride: from scoring two goals in one game to not having a good game the next one,” said Pontius about maintaining mental toughness. “So, [it’s important] to keep an even keel and to always keep focused on what your goals are. Just don’t let the highs get too high and the lows get too low.”
USMNT Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann took notice of Pontius’ potential and asked the California native to join the team in this year's January camp – along with United teammate Bill Hamid – but a re-aggravated groin injury caused Pontius to decline the invite. With his commitment to the club and an understanding of the bigger picture in mind, Pontius focused on his health in the offseason and is now back at full strength.
“You know, it wasn’t a decision that just happened overnight…” said Pontius back in January. “I probably could have gotten by [in camp], but I wouldn’t have been 100% and it wouldn’t have been fair to me and it wouldn’t have been fair to the coaches to show a less than 100% me.”
With the USMNT in the Hexagonal (final) Round of 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, Pontius looks primed to receive another call-up if he builds off of his 2012 form. The squad opened the Hex on Feb. 6 against Honduras at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano and fell 2-1 to the Central American side. Next up for the Americans is Costa Rica on March 22 in Commerce City, Colo., and Mexico on March 26 at the feared fortress, Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. In a friendly on Aug. 15, 2012, the U.S. defeated Mexico on Mexican soil for the first time ever, which will provide a huge boost coming into March’s match.
With the 2014 World Cup just around the corner, Pontius, 25, is still searching for his first international cap and dreams of reaching the big stage with the National Team.
“I would love to be a part of that roster,” said Pontius. “I think that players who say that they wouldn’t want to be a part of that roster are crazy. I think that’s where every American should strive to be – that’s my goal and I’ll do anything I can to achieve that.”