- - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Returning from injury can be all about the benchmarks. First time jogging. First practice. First game.

For D.C. United’s Chris Pontius, another one of those milestones arrived Tuesday. Visiting Jamaican club Waterhouse in CONCACAF Champions League action, he came off the bench late in the 2-0 win. At one point, he eyed a one-on-one matchup, accelerated and blew past his defender.

It was vintage Pontius — something United hasn’t seen in nearly a year.

“That was one of the first times where I was like, ‘I’m OK,’” Pontius said. “It was good to get that.”

That match was Pontius‘ second appearance since October. After hamstring issues lingered into this season, the midfielder-forward underwent surgery in April that sidelined him for four and a half months.

With United (14-9-5) in first place in the Eastern Conference with six league games remaining, Pontius has returned just in time for the home stretch and playoff run. But coach Ben Olsen also is resisting the temptation to rush the 27-year-old back into the fold.

“We continue to try to push his minutes, but we’re still being patient and understanding he’s been out a long time,” Olsen said. “We don’t want setbacks. But we also understand he’s going to be a key piece down the stretch for us and he needs to push his minutes.

“There’s what I want to do with him and there’s what we should do. So far we’ve been sticking with what we should do.”

A dynamic attacking presence from the flank or up top, Pontius logged eight minutes in a loss to New York last week before playing 23 minutes Tuesday. Going into Saturday’s trip to face the Chicago Fire (5-7-15), he feels he’s ready to potentially push 60 minutes but says going the full 90 is “still a while off.”

Of course, fitness is just one aspect at play. Regaining a rhythm at game speed also takes time.

“The last thing that comes along is your decision-making on the ball,” Pontius said. “No matter how much soccer you watch, even if you get into those spots and make the right decisions, it’s difficult. You’re a little bit tired and things are moving faster.”

Pontius‘ return also comes at an opportune time personnel-wise. Midfielder Chris Rolfe (six goals, six assists) is out until at least mid-October with a broken arm and forward Fabian Espindola (nine goals, nine assists) is suspended against the Fire.

Although striker Eddie Johnson is expected to play Saturday after a two-week stint on the sidelines with concussion-like symptoms, United’s depth will be tested as the club balances MLS with its two remaining Champions League matches.

“[Pontius] is a game-changer,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “To have Chris back is very vital at this point because guys are dropping. Whether it’s injuries or suspensions, people are going to be missing time. To have a deeper team, it’s obviously very important.”

That said, the club’s success does take some pressure off Pontius. United should clinch a playoff spot with several weeks to spare, and the team is well-positioned to advance to next spring’s Champions League quarterfinals as well. The schedule is busy, but this isn’t desperation time.

For United’s longest-tenured player, watching from the sidelines has been a grind. Pontius has relished the team’s best season in nearly a decade, yet been frustrated by his inability to contribute to it.

At long last, it’s now time for Pontius to experience the best of both worlds.

“It’s nice to not have to stay at the stadium and do rehab,” Pontius said. “I don’t wish injuries on anyone. It’s been a long road back, but it’s nice to get in with the guys and to get sweating on the field and just be tired when I get home.”

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