Chris Pontius thought he knew how to run.
And that seems obvious, given a glittering college career at UC Santa Barbara, the success he enjoyed in his first professional campaign with D.C. United last year and the US National Team call-up that followed in January.
But a persistent hamstring problem has insisted otherwise, sidetracking his season and forcing him to re-learn one of the most basic tools at a player’s disposal.
What started out as a seemingly pedestrian knock in the US camp has subsequently proven to be symptomatic of a deeper issue, one that led to a serious strain in United’s 2-0 loss to Chicago on April 17, robbing the Black-and-Red of one of their most dynamic attackers and prompting a deeper inquest by a training staff dismayed by the team’s outbreak of hamstring injuries.
“We’ve noticed this from day one, that when he opens up and hits his stride, he’s a very upright runner and he stops attacking the ground with his quads and kicks back, which is all hamstrings,” explained Randy Rocha, D.C.’s head strength and conditioning coach. "So we’re trying to change his mechanics.
“It’s tough because you have a successful athlete like that that’s done something his entire life a certain way. He’s still young, but he’s not getting younger. We tend to see these issues come about in their playing careers, and they don’t heal as quickly as they used to.”
The problem has deep roots. Since high school, Pontius has dealt with a recurring case of piraformis syndrome, an irritation of the nerves running in and around the area where the hamstring and gluteus muscles connect to the body’s core. So he’s spent the last month not only healing, but also trying to doctor his biomechanics to ensure a long-term solution – a truly difficult task.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge because you’ve been doing something for 23 years of your life, so it’s hard to change," said Pontius. "But I obviously need to change. I’ve had hamstring problems before so we had to stay on top of things. If you’re thinking about it too much then you’re not thinking about the game, obviously, but it’s just repetition. The more repetition I get in of the right mechanics, then it’ll come along eventually.”
The Californian finally rejoined team training sessions this week and slotted in rapidly, a pleasant surprise for player and coaches alike.
“He looks sharp technically, which is a little surprising for being out for a while,” D.C. assistant coach Kris Kelderman said on Wednesday. "Physically, he looks pretty good so we’re excited about it."
United have keenly missed Pontius’ work rate and versatility and though he is some distance short of full fitness, he’s made the traveling squad for this weekend’s trip to Houston. Kelderman nonetheless preached caution about Pontius’ return.
“Prior to really hurting himself badly, that was a nagging injury and we want to be careful that we don’t bring him back too quick so it’s a step backwards,” he added. “So we’ve got to be real smart with him make sure that when he steps on the field, he’s ready to go full tilt.”
As Rocha noted, “there are no quick fixes” for someone in Pontius’ situation, but he hopes he can learn from his injury struggles and resume his integral role in the D.C. attack.
“I’ve been inside for long and to actually be out running and playing with these guys now feels good,” Pontius said. “I’m very excited about it.”