Pontius back with DC after US call-up

Thirteen months and two weeks ago, Chris Pontius entered the professional ranks as a first-round SuperDraft selection for D.C. United. Forty matches, 31 starts, eight goals, six assists and two U.S. national team call-ups later, the Cal-Santa Barbara graduate has officially begun his second MLS season, having rejoined his United teammates this week after a second stint with the U.S. squad leading up to last week's international friendly against El Salvador.It's been a time of startling progress for the young attacker and while he was disappointed to be left off Bob Bradley's national team game day roster in Tampa, he returns to his club with a wealth of new experiences -- and the tantalizing taste of international soccer fresh in his mind."Oh, it's definitely progress," said Pontius after United's training at RFK Stadium on Tuesday. "Any time you're training at that level, you're going to become a better player. So I'm just trying to take the positives out of it."Along with his elder D.C. teammate Troy Perkins, Pontius was invited to both of Bradley's winter camps in southern California and he was awed by the degrees of intensity and application he encountered there. Despite a prolific college career at Santa Barbara, he had no youth national team background to prepare him for the adjustment."It's just the speed of the game," he explained. "It's at another level, it really is, and you have to play at that level, perform at that level every day. There's no days that you can take off and kind of mentally space out -- not even any plays. You just have to be mentally tuned in 100 percent of the time."Both Perkins and Pontius sat out the El Salvador match and look like long shots to make the U.S. World Cup roster at this point, which would seem like a blessing for a United squad which expects to rely heavily on both men as league play unfolds this summer. But D.C. general manager Dave Kasper contends that the club fully supports their players' international ambitions."We really wanted both of those guys to play. We actually wanted Chris to get his first minutes, so he just has to keep working hard. He's going to get his chance," said Kasper. "Of course you miss a player, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing so you always want that for your players."Now Pontius faces the deceptively difficult challenge of continuing his fine MLS form and avoiding the "sophomore slump" for D.C. this season, where he'll bear far greater expectations than he did as a rookie. He was handed a role on the wing in U.S. camp but seems more likely to play up front for Curt Onalfo's side, who are making the transition from last year's 3-5-2 shape to a 4-4-2 approach similar to that of the USA. He may also find himself under consideration for the attacking midfield spot, which will be more of a two-way, box-to-box tasking under Onalfo.Pontius himself is decidedly coy about his own tactical placement."Wherever the team needs me," he said on Tuesday. "I honestly don't know and I think I'll find out more through preseason where I feel comfortable on this team and where they want me to play."He broke into a grin when pressed about his personal preferences, then dodged again."I like both. I like the [playmaking] challenge, I like the responsibility, but I also like to score goals. So hopefully I can do both."A glimpse of his efforts on the RFK training ground suggests that a rapidly maturing Pontius is far more eager to take a leading role in United's 2010 resurgence than he is answer reporters' questions on the matter."I really think it's a confidence thing for me now," he said. "I know all the players, they know me and how I play. So I play to their strengths and they play to mine. I just feel a lot more confident and I feel I've become a better player over the past year -- I would hope so -- and so I think that'll help me throughout this next year."