- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 6, 2012

It’s tough to imagine Chris Pontius lagging behind. But sometimes, the man just can’t keep up.

On the field, of course, he’s in his comfort zone. There, the D.C. United attacker is about as swift as they come with the ball at his feet, a barraging forward force with a nasty cutback move and quite the finishing touch.

For all the pace Pontius can offer on the dribble, though, it doesn’t do him much good when it comes to staying up to speed with life in the District. A Southern California boy born and raised, Pontius quickly cultivated his scouting report on the people of Washington upon arriving in early 2009.

“Oh, very Type A personality,” he said with a laugh. “Always on the move.”

So what about Pontius? He’s definitely Type B. Nice and slow. Well, until you get him on the pitch. Then matters change. Then he can be ruthless — to the tune of 12 goals in 2012.

On Wednesday, Pontius will take to the field for the biggest contest of his professional career. After a 1-1 draw in Game 1 against the New York Red Bulls, United will travel to Harrison, N.J., for the do-or-die second leg of their two-match, total-goals Eastern Conference semifinal.

En route to this stage, Pontius in recent weeks has been asked to step up on the leadership front. Once Dwayne De Rosario went down with a sprained knee ligament in mid-September, it was the 25-year-old who took on the captain’s armband.

While it may not be the most natural role for a young, easygoing figure such as Pontius, he’s found a way to put his own spin on the task. Considering he helped steer United through a 5-0-2 run to clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 2007, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Chris is not a big rah-rah guy, a guy who is going to make speeches or anything like that,” club president Kevin Payne said. “But he’s more assertive in the locker room, and certainly on the field he wants to be the guy that people look to.”

‘Take life in stride’

Pontius always has been pragmatic. Playing high school soccer in Orange County, Calif., his goal was simply to make it at the college level. Looking any further would be too much, he figured. Once he got a scholarship to play at UC Santa Barbara, he just wanted to lock down a starting spot. No need to get ahead of himself.

It wasn’t until his junior season, in fact, that he thought pro soccer was in the cards. By the time his four years at UCSB were over, he was a blue-chip MLS prospect. In January 2009, United took Pontius with the seventh pick in the MLS SuperDraft, sending the West Coaster to the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital.

“It was culture shock, definitely for me, those first couple months, leaving your friends and your family that you haven’t left for your whole life,” Pontius recalled. “I just think people’s attitudes here are very different than mine. I’m very laid back, and I just try to take life in stride. I don’t take myself too seriously.”

But he does take wins and losses seriously. When Pontius joined United, defeat was an unfamiliar concept.

That changed quickly. After qualifying for the NCAA tournament every year at UCSB, winning a national title in 2006, Pontius saw United barely miss the playoffs his rookie season. In Year 2, D.C. was the worst team in MLS. And his third campaign ended without a trip to the postseason as well.

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

Pontius on Saturday night found himself engulfed in a throng of media. His memories of the preceding match still were as vivid as the redness lingering on his ears and hands, the product of 90 minutes in the biting cold.

On other occasions, the reporters would want him to recount his latest highlight-reel goal. Or even better, give his take on a D.C. win. But that wasn’t the case. No, this swarm had one main concern: Pontius‘ penalty kick in United’s first-leg draw against New York.

As he stepped up to the spot, he struck the ball with power. The placement, however, was lacking — and Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles pushed it away.

“I just missed it,” he explained. “But I’ve got a short-term memory.”

That’s no surprise. Pontius, after all, is a pro when it comes to bouncing back. His track record recovering from injuries speaks for itself.

“He’s a guy that’s going to shake off his mistakes and get on to the next one,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “That’s what you want to see, especially out of your captain.”

Going into Wednesday’s decisive Game 2, it’s become clear the club is buying into Pontius‘ calming, lead-by-example approach. His brother observed that “he’s taken that leadership role, but he’s not trying to do too much with it — just help the team with whatever he can do.”

Although Pontius has been quietly displeased with his play of late, he’s kept the narrative focused on the club’s winning ways, routinely deflecting praise to his teammates and coaches. The player contingent’s unofficial ambassador to the press, he certainly has learned how to say the right thing.

“Listen, if we’re winning, I’m happy,” Pontius said. “Obviously, I want to be a part of it. Obviously, I want to be on the field for it. Obviously, I want to play well for it. But for me, goals and assists come completely after that. It’s about getting this team on past this round.”

Spoken as a true captain — if not a conventional one.