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Talk about culture shock.

“I was definitely frustrated,” Pontius said. “I was never used to losing. I was never on losing teams. So for me to come in and lose games, it eats you. It eats you alive.”

A long time coming

The squad’s shortcomings were not tolerated. As coaches came and went, wholesale personnel changes were made. By the time this season started, Pontius had achieved the unlikely status of being the organization’s longest-tenured player.

One can understand why United invested in him. At 6 feet, 170 pounds, with speed, Pontius has the physical tools. He is proficient on the flank or up top. He can run at defenders or turn toward goal to fire with either foot.

In Payne’s words, “He’s the full package of a modern player.” And his trajectory remains tilted firmly upward.

“He definitely has a lot more confidence,” said center back Dejan Jakovic, another four-year United veteran. “Now, he’s just evolved — his finishing or whether he’s setting you up. He’s grown as a player, and he’s showing it.”

In July, Pontius was voted the All-Star Game MVP. Last week, he was named United’s top player of 2012. Next, a spot on the shortlist for Comeback Player of the Year seems imminent, as does a call-up to the U.S. national team.

Understanding the fragility of an athletic career, Pontius often reminds himself not to take it for granted. Watching from the sideline can instill such a philosophy, and he did plenty of that while missing much of 2010 with a hamstring ailment and the stretch run of 2011 with a broken leg.

“He’s been focused, and he’s been healthy,” coach Ben Olsen said. “We always knew that once he put a full healthy year in, that he was going to be someone that really excels with our group and within the league. So it’s no real surprise to us.”

The play of Pontius, who signed a new contract in September, was critical for a D.C. side that finished second in the East with a 17-10-7 mark. When the final whistle blew Oct. 20 at RFK Stadium, capping United’s playoff-clinching win over the Columbus Crew, Pontius found Olsen amid the merriment and shared a long embrace with the onetime D.C. player he has called a teammate and coach.

As Pontius said, the roster turnaround is “tough at times because emotionally you get invested with your teammates — and then they’re gone.”

Surrounded by newcomers brought in to turn the franchise’s fate, Pontius and Olsen were among the few who endured long enough to see through United’s long road back to prominence.

“The losing is never easy,” said Pontius‘ brother, Tim, who played with him at UCSB. “It means a whole lot more to know that he’s worked hard for four years and finally it’s paying off.”

Locker room leader

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