After suffering season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2011, midfielder Chris Pontius returned in 2012 with vigor, earning an MLS Best XI selection and a runner-up slot for the Comeback Player of the Year. Additionally, Pontius set career 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.
We sat down with Pontius today to chat about his 2012 accolades, his U.S. Men’s National Team aspirations, his growth since his rookie season in 2009 and more.
Where were you when you heard the news that you were in the MLS Best XI?
Todd Durbin [EVP of player relations and competition of MLS] called me and told me about a week ago, so I was just waking up in the morning, got a call from an unknown number. It’s obviously a nice award to receive, and you know, I think for our team, it shows how far we came as a team this year and I think it’s a testament to what we accomplished as well.
You’re a big team player, but what does it mean for you to get individual recognition?
“It’s all nice – I’ve always said, though, that I would take an MLS Cup over anything individually. That’s the way it will always be for me. I think for the guys this year, we got a good taste of what playoffs are like, and I think that’s good ‘cause guys are hungry for more next year.”
And how does it feel, especially coming back from a broken leg last year, to be included in the Best XI?
Last year was tough mentally for me, but credit to everyone in our training staff to have me back fully healthy. The coaching staff and the players have the confidence in me to step back out and do my job – it’s always tough with injuries, but I think it’s how you respond as a player and how you respond as a person and how you bounce back, that’s what defines you. How you respond from hardships is what shows what kind of a person you are.
You mentioned that you felt like you came back stronger after injury, but what was something really tangible this year that was a difference in how you prepared and your game overall?
I don’t think there was a difference in how I prepared – I just think I was able to put the ball in the net, influence the score sheet more this year. You know, I thought I had a good year [last year] until I broke my leg, so I think my finishing improved. I was able to get on the score sheet and put numbers up when it mattered.
When you look back to 2009 Rookie of the Year finalist Pontius and now, 2012 Comeback Player of the Year runner-up and Best XI selection Pontius, what do you see as the biggest difference in yourself?
Oh, I was young, I was immature as a rookie. 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.
Speaking of leadership, you stepped in as captain when Dwayne De Rosario was sidelined late in the season – how was that experience different than just being a player on the team/locker room guy?
You know, I’ve always been a voice in the locker room, but wearing the captain’s armband is a bit different, especially since DeRo’s a guy who’s very motivational – he’s a feisty character. What you see on the field is what you get in the locker room with him. So, he’s very good with the players whereas I’m a bit quieter in that sense, but I like my play on the field to do the talking and hopefully lead the guys in that way.
The team has a good core group of players here that went far in the playoffs together – what do you think it’s going to take next year to lift trophies?
I think a bit more consistency from us – we had a good run at the end there in streaks of games, with our winning streak, and I think if we could do that a lot earlier in the season and gain more confidence, I think we can be a force to be reckoned with. As for everything else, I just think we played as a team in the end. We need to continue that and the hunger needs to be there from the guys.
When you look back on your 2012, what was the “peak” of your season, personally, and what was the “pit”?
The pit? [laughs] The pit was probably the first two games – I was struggling with confidence coming back from injury and didn’t play very well. Personally, for me, the peak was beating New York in New York [in Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals]. I know that I didn’t score or have an assist or anything, but to do that in the fashion that we did, as a team, coming together in that game – that was awesome.
Yeah, it seemed like a lot of the guys at season’s end talked about that game as their highlight for the whole season as well.
It was a bunch of different emotions – you go from being down a man and them having a PK, to Joe [Willis] saving it, to them getting a red card – it was just a back and forth game with a lot of opportunities for both teams and then obviously Robbie [Russell] and Nick [DeLeon] connecting on that play. To do it up in New York was even sweeter. So, I just think that was a great moment for the club and for our team as well.
So, what do you guys think of Bill [Hamid’s] “They can’t hold us back” mantra? Do you guys like to give him stick for it?
No [laughs]. The fans have taken onto it and I think – obviously the video is pretty funny; I had a good laugh at it. But I think it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Switching gears a little, you’ve been in the USMNT conversation for a while – have gotten a few calls, but not your first cap yet – what’s it going to take to break into the roster?
Just the opportunity – I need to be healthy to go in and prove that I can play at that level. You know, obviously, hopefully it comes soon and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go in and impress.
And when you think about qualifying and the potential for the U.S. to be in the World Cup, do you see yourself in Brazil in 2014?
Yeah, I would love to be a part of that roster. I think that players who say that they wouldn’t want to be a part of that roster is 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.
What are your plans for the offseason?
Staying around here – well, going out to MLS Cup and have Kurt Morsink [scouting coordinator at D.C. United] sweating [laughs]. But, gonna stay out here, train – the groin is healing well, just want to make sure it gets back to 100% and then Christmas in California. After that, there’s a lot of question marks – maybe national team camp and stuff like that.
So, what’s the rough time frame for your recovery from the groin injury?
Oh, I think I should be ok in the next week or two. I should be fine.
You’re a California kid, but you’ve been East Coast livin’ for about four years now and are now United’s longest tenured player. What’s the biggest thing D.C. has to offer that you don’t get back in SoCal?
Other than the history, my favorite thing is that my friends and family always want to come visit because it is such a beautiful city. So, I don’t feel like I’m that far away from people – I have friends that are always stopping by in the city, whether it’s for business or family that wants to come and see the sights. I feel like I’m really blessed to live in this place – you know, you just drive around the city and see all the monuments and I think I take it for granted some days, but when people come and visit, that’s when I get to realize how blessed I am to live in such a great city.
So, what’s your “go-to” spot when you have family or friends come here?
For food, I’ve always loved Circa for just the atmosphere and food, in Dupont or Clarendon or Foggy Bottom. As for sights, my favorite would have to be the Lincoln [Memorial]. I know that’s probably a lot of people’s favorite, but I like to take my friends and family on a bike ride around all of them – I think that’s pretty cool.