Chris Pontius doesn’t take anything for granted. It’s an ideology he has embraced through the all-too-familiar hardship afforded by months of rest, rehabilitation and missed opportunities.
The circumstances that have repeatedly dulled the radiance of this rising D.C. United star have been unfortunate. In 2010, it was a nagging hamstring that ultimately required season-ending surgery. Last year, it was a broken leg, the result of awkward timing and a clumsy tackle.
The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of elite talent. But any cockiness cultivated has been smothered by his time forced to the sideline.
“When you sit out from an injury,” Pontius said, “you really get to realize how much you miss the game and how much a blessing it is to be in our position to play this sport that we love.”
After a four-match stint on the bench earlier this season, Pontius is fit, fully healthy and playing with brazen confidence. Logging minutes as a forward and left midfielder, Pontius has scored a career-high nine goals in just 16 games — topping the seven tallies he compiled in 25 contests last season before his campaign was halted in early September.
Pontius was rewarded Sunday when United coach Ben Olsen named the California native to his first MLS All-Star Game. After United (10-6-3) travel to face the Columbus Crew (6-7-4) on Saturday, Pontius will join Olsen, the All-Star coach, and D.C. captain Dwayne De Rosario in Chester, Pa., for the 18-man MLS squad’s match Wednesday against European champion Chelsea FC.
“We’re all excited for him — he’s earned it,” left back Daniel Woolard said. “It’s good to see him healthy and playing well. He works hard on and off the field, and I think it’s shown in the way he’s recovered from those injuries and come back and played even better.”
Pontius, in his fourth year, relies on the same skills that have always defined him. When it comes to dribbling at defenders, few players in MLS are as dynamic as the UC Santa Barbara product, who offers on-the-ball pace, a trademark cut-back move and the ability to emphatically finish with both feet.
But this season, Pontius has shown improved awareness as an attacker, positioning himself effectively in the attacking third while making runs in behind defenders.
“I think we all expected it,” Olsen said of Pontius‘ surge. “We’ve all seen Chris have these really impressive moments, and we were just waiting for him to have a stretch of health where we knew we could get him playing this way game in, game out. He’s got a good mentality. He’s not a guy who’s going to get too complacent.”
Added Pontius: “As you get older, you obviously learn from your mistakes in the past, and I think I’ve done that and been able to just make myself better from it. I don’t think I’m faster, I don’t think I’m stronger, I don’t think my touch is better or anything like that. I just think I’m a smarter player, and I’m finding better spots.”
If the All-Star recognition isn’t enough, Pontius also is a front-runner for the league’s Comeback Player of the Year honor. As his profile within MLS rises, so does his stock with the U.S. national team. Although he has participated in two U.S. camps, including one under coach Jurgen Klinsmann just a week before breaking his leg in September, Pontius has not yet received a cap.
As he puts it, “If I take care of business with D.C., then hopefully the call will come.”
Until then, Pontius‘ full emphasis is on maintaining his form down the stretch and relishing the opportunity to take part in the playoffs for the first time.
“Every game, you hear people say, could be your last,” Pontius said. “You’ve seen it happen to people’s careers. So you’ve got to go out there and put your best effort forward. I don’t want to walk away from the game when I’m older and say, ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda.’”