No, coach Ben Olsen went through a slew of combinations up top to mixed results before pairing Santos, a reserve to start the season, with Pontius, who initially was penciled in as a left-sided midfielder.
But when they started together Sunday against the New York Red Bulls, United’s attack clicked. With Santos, a physical 6-foot-1 target man, complementing the quicker, more dribble-oriented Pontius, D.C. gave the New York defense fits throughout, rolling to a 4-1 win paced by Pontius‘ first career hat trick.
“I like those two up top,” midfielder Nick DeLeon said. “Chris, he’s a hard worker, and he makes great runs in behind. And Maicon is a forward who’s strong on the ball, and he’ll hold it up for us. It’s a good combo.”
With United (3-2-3) riding a six-game unbeaten streak, Pontius and Santos are poised to start their second game together Saturday when D.C. hosts the Houston Dynamo (2-1-2) at RFK Stadium. While the team’s three highest-paid players — attackers Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi and Dwayne De Rosario, the reigning Most Valuable Player — have been shut out of the goal column this season, Pontius and Santos have picked up the slack by bagging four tallies each, good for fourth in the league.
For Pontius, the shift to forward has been necessitated by the emergence of DeLeon (three goals, three assists) on the left flank as the early Rookie of the Year favorite. After Pontius‘ three-goal performance Sunday, Olsen pointed out the 24-year-old “still doesn’t know how to play forward. That’s the scary thing.”
Although Pontius has played the position sporadically, he mostly has been used as a midfielder throughout his four-year career and agrees he still has much to learn.
“I still make some bad turnovers in some spots that I need to clean up,” Pontius said. “Your movement off the ball is a lot different as a forward than as an outside mid. So I’ve got to constantly be moving. And when the ball does come in to me, I need to be able to hold it up and be strong.”
Added Santos: “Playing with his back to the goal is kind of difficult. But I think he is going to adapt very fast.”
Santos, on the other hand, has been a constant up top, starting six of United’s first eight games after initially being pegged as the backup to Salihi, a ballyhooed offseason acquisition. Whether he has been deployed with Pontius, Salihi, De Rosario or veteran Josh Wolff, the 28-year-old Brazilian journeyman has just kept doing what he does best: bruising opposing back lines and launching long-range shots.
“He continues to be a handful physically for teams,” Olsen said. “And the guy that’s paired up with him gets a lot of second balls and has some joy.”
Even though they’ve only made one start together, it appears there already is an understanding between Pontius and Santos. If all goes well for United, it’s chemistry that will only improve as the partnership gets more time to flourish.
“There’s always someone running and crashing the back line,” Pontius said. “Obviously, I’m watching what he’s doing, and he’s watching what I’m doing, and we’re smart about our runs from there and just hopefully making the defense make some tough decisions.”
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