- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2011

The confidence is back, and he no longer is hurting. D.C. United attacking midfielder Chris Pontius finally is where he wants to be, running at opposing players and stamping his mark on games.

Already this season, the 24-year-old has shown the form that made him look so exciting in his rookie season in 2009. At Toronto FC early last month, he notched two goals in United’s 3-0 win. And Pontius came up big again Saturday night at RFK Stadium, where United (3-4-3) found themselves a goal down against the Major League Soccer champion Colorado Rapids after losing its two key strikers to injury before the halftime break.

After a lecture from coach Ben Olsen in the locker room, Pontius went out and lifted his team by drawing a penalty kick just off the hour-mark. He then converted the kick with a blistering shot to give the club a 1-1 tie. He also won the man-of-the match honors.

“It’s not ideal to have both your forwards go off in the first half, but soccer throws some weird things at you sometimes,” Pontius said. “We obviously needed to pick up that goal, and I thought we handled it pretty well.”

Last season, Pontius was plagued with a hamstring injury which limited him to just 17 games. This season, he is taking more shots by far than any other United player (23) and leads in the shots-on-goal category (11).

“I feel like I’m playing with some confidence now,” Pontius said. “Last year, every time I took off on a sprint, in the back of my head I knew that I was hurting so I always questioned myself when I ran at players. Now I’m not thinking; I’m just doing it. Mentally for me, it’s been a lot easier this year.”

Now, a three-year veteran on a young team, Pontius knows he has to step up and lead.

With United’s forwards Charlie Davies (hamstring) and Josh Wolff (groin) injured early in the Rapids game, Pontius showed maturity in his play and took on more of the offensive duties.

United already had been denied two penalty-kick opportunities after strikers Joseph Ngwenya and Davies were brought down in the box. So when Pontius muscled his way into the Rapids’ 18-yard area in a tussle with defender Kosuke Kimura, he knew there was a possibility of earning a make-up call from referee Terry Vaughn, who appeared to be having a bad night.

“We stress to him each week to take on those one-on-one battles and go at guys,” said Wolff. “We were unlucky not to have a penalty on Joe [Ngwenya]. That’s still ringing in the ref’s head. So Pontius does well to get in the box and gets some good, solid contact. He wins the penalty and takes it well.”

Pontius‘ goal extended United’s unbeaten streak to three games.

“He’s part of a lot of the good things we do,” said Olsen. “Physically, he’s pretty well-rounded and strong. I think he’s getting there. We still need more numbers from him. He still needs more goals and more assists for us.”

In his injury-plagued season last year, Pontius notched just two goals in 17 games (13 starts). Already this season, he has three goals in 10 games and looks on track to equal or eclipse the four goals he scored in 28 games (23 starts) in his rookie season.

“I demand a lot of myself,” Pontius said. “I hold myself accountable for how this team does, and this being my third year I’m one of the veterans, so I have to set an example for the young guys.”

United now have a two week break from league games allowing some players to rest and heal their injuries.

Next Sunday, the team plays an international friendly against Dutch giant Ajax of Amsterdam at RFK.

“We grew up watching teams like Ajax so any time you get to play a team like this it’s good for us and our fans,” Pontius said. “Some of the players that have some knocks won’t be in that game because the league is far more important.”

Following the Ajax game, the United’s next four matches will be against teams in the tough Western Conference, including a trip to the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C.’s first visit to the Portland Timbers.

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