For 67 minutes Saturday, D.C. United were clicking on all cylinders.
Chris Pontius did the passing, while Charlie Davies did the scoring. Together, they combined for three goals that gave Davies his first MLS hat trick and United a 3-0 lead at fellow playoff hopeful Chivas USA.
For an erratic D.C. team, the convincing performance showed just how dangerous it could be as the postseason looms, especially when the club’s plethora of attacking weapons are in sync.
But in the 68th minute, Pontius and Chivas defender David Junior Lopes slid for a 50-50 ball and awkwardly collided. Lopes was shown a red card for the challenge, and Pontius left the field on a stretcher. Although United coasted to victory, it was a bittersweet triumph — Pontius had a broken right leg that will likely sideline him for the rest of 2011.
“The news on Pontius is disappointing,” forward Josh Wolff said. “He’s obviously a big part of who we are in our attack. We’re saddened losing him, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to pick up the responsibility and run with it.”
Those players will be key as United (8-7-10) continue to climb toward the club’s first playoff bid since 2008, starting with Saturday’s trip to CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Sounders (13-6-9).
Pontius‘ absence leaves a sizable void in United’s attack. Playing mostly as a left-sided midfielder, the 24-year-old came back from an injury-plagued 2010 campaign to notch seven goals and five assists, including three Saturday, and he is the only United player to have started every game this season.
He also parlayed his fine play into a call-up to the U.S. national team earlier this month for a friendly against Costa Rica.
“He really was starting to step into his own as a player,” assistant coach Chad Ashton said. “The timing was terrible for him, it was terrible for us. But that’s part of life — you have setbacks.”
Some of the burden will fall to the feet of Wolff, who has enjoyed a resurgent season (five goals, five assists) at age 34. The veteran, though, has been hampered by nagging injuries of late, a development which led coach Ben Olsen to slide Pontius to the front line against Chivas.
Santino Quaranta, who has started four of five matches since returning from a concussion in early August, is the likely replacement for Pontius on the wing. But considering Quaranta’s value as a utility player who can also fill in centrally or up top, odds are his services will be required elsewhere on the pitch from time to time.
As a result, the player whose minutes figure to have the most notable uptick is Austin da Luz, a left-footed midfielder acquired from the New York Red Bulls in July. The third-year player out of Wake Forest is yet to make his first start for United but has appeared in five matches as a substitute, drawing a crucial penalty kick in 3-3 draw against Toronto FC on Aug. 6.
“I’ve settled in pretty quickly and I feel like I’ve got the confidence of my teammates, of Benny and the coaching staff,” da Luz said. “I’m ready to do whatever is needed of me, whether it’s starting, whether it’s coming off the bench. … But it’s also going to be more of a collective thing where everybody is going to have to pick up a little slack.”
The United players know, however, that as important as Pontius is to the team, the contributions of a single player can only go so far. They need look no further than the Sounders, who have surged to the league’s second-best record despite losing dynamic winger Steve Zakuani to a broken leg in April.
“The real underlying theme for us is we just don’t get consumed by being a one-man band,” Wolff said. “On the whole, we’ve got a good group. We’ve got to maintain the things that we’re about.”