After straining his groin in United’s 3-1 loss to Houston last Sunday – exiting in the 12th minute – Chris Pontius has yet to return to the practice pitch. Having stepped in as captain after Dwayne De Rosario was sidelined to an MCL injury in September, the question remains as to whether the Black-and-Red’s longest tenured player would return to the field this Sunday (4 p.m., NBC Sports Network).
“We’re still evaluating,” said Head Coach Ben Olsen. “He is definitely injured and we’ve got to see where he is. We need to be very smart because we can’t afford to pull anyone out early for this game.”
After suffering season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2011, Pontius had a career year in 2012, setting highs in goals (12), games played (31), games started (26), minutes (2,339), shots (71) and shots on goal (29). Six of Pontius’ 12 goals this season were game-winners, tied for the club record set in 1996 by Steve Rammel and tied for third in MLS in 2012. Pontius also earned four team accolades, including the Volkswagen MVP award.
Defender Brandon McDonald, who is also questionable for Sunday’s game, underlined his internal struggle between wanting to compete and doing what is ultimately best for the club: “For me, it’s about the team – I don’t want to be selfish. Right now, the way I feel, I could go out there and play, but my thing is I don’t want it to be another Houston thing where I’m going out there playing 50 minutes and having to waste a sub.”
“If I can’t go out there and play 120 minutes, then I don’t need to be on the field.”
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
While there seems to be a difference of opinion among the squad as to whether it is paramount to score in the opening minutes, a common thread that emerged was the necessity to remain calm. Having struck the back of the net more than any other team this season besides San Jose, LA and New York, the Black-and-Red remain certain of its ability to hammer the ball home.
“We’re confident in the way we play at home,” said Olsen. “All year we have been aggressive and gone after teams and scored goals at home.”
“Just like we don’t want to get over-aggressive, I’m sure they don’t want to sit back and defend,” said Olsen. “It’s a little bit of a chess match.”
Although McDonald stressed the importance of going up early, United forward Hamdi Salihi mirrored his skipper’s sentiments and said: “Goals could come in the last 10 minutes – we just have to be patient and always believe in ourselves.”
ANY TIME, ANY PLACE, ANY PLAYER
With several first-choice starters on the mend, projections for which starting XI Olsen will employ on Sunday remain speculative at best. However, dipping into the bench and relying on reserve players to come up big has been so typical of this season that it is almost commonplace. On top of Olsen constructing 32 distinct lineups in 37 games (including post-season), 11 different United players have contributed either a goal or an assist in the last 12 goals the club has scored.
“Every one of us will be ready to step up, regardless of who’s in there,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid. “Throughout the season, we’ve had to lean on every single player in this locker room, so we know that anyone could go out there and stay tuned in, perform and get the job done.”
Brazilian international Raphael Augusto was the latest role player to get his day last week in Houston, subbing in to play his first MLS minutes and wreaking some havoc in the process. Andre Hainault’s take-down of Augusto outside of the box was not called a foul, but PRO GM Peter Walton later stated that upon review, a red card should have been issued for the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
“[Augusto] is very calm on the ball – even for his first game, I thought he did pretty well for us,” said Olsen. “It’s not an easy situation to go into – away at Houston for your first game in a playoff match…if it’s a game where we need possession, a little bit more East-West type play, he’s a guy that can really help us.”