Pontius, Neal step up their games in De Rosario's absence
WASHINGTON – On Friday night, Chris Pontius and Lewis Neal exchanged some friendly text messages.
Neal sent a note to Pontius congratulating him on his new long-term contract with D.C. United and Pontius replied in kind, saying that Neal would enter Saturday’s match and set Pontius up for a goal.
Turns out, Pontius nearly nailed the prediction. He simply had the roles reversed.
Neal’s first MLS goal – naturally, assisted by Pontius – proved to be the game-winner in D.C.’s 2-1 victory over New England at RFK Stadium, and helped thrust United back into fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
“We should text before all our games just to see if it could get one of us a goal or an assist,” Neal said with a laugh after the win.
Neal, who subbed on for Branko Boskovic in the 56th minute, had logged only 420 minutes all season and started four matches with United. He spent 2011 with the USL’s Orlando City and is one of many players who will now be asked to step up their game in the absence of Dwayne De Rosario, who is out for the rest of the season with an MCL sprain.
“I really just left Pontius to do his work,” Neal said of his 63rd-minute goal. “He played it to me and I was lucky enough to get a decent side foot on it and guide it into the corner.”
Though D.C.’s effort was far from crisp – United coach Ben Olsen used the word “rusty” repeatedly in the postgame press conference – the win was critical to help the home side maintain pace in the playoff race. Olsen praised Neal’s second-half effort in place of Boskovic.
“Lewis really came in and changed the game,” Olsen said. “He slowed us down a little bit, kept possession, won some tackles and was pretty diligent in doing the work next to Perry [Kitchen]. Then he gets the goal, which is great. The kid hasn’t gotten that much time this year. He’s a true pro and I’m happy for him to get the winner.”
Meanwhile, Neal’s texting good-luck charm Pontius had quite a game himself.
D.C.’s captain Saturday night, Pontius, who scored his team-leading 11th goal of the season in the first half, stressed at practice throughout the week the importance of everyone understanding their individual roles in the absence of De Rosario.
“With a leadership role, maybe I have to be a little bit more vocal on the field with De Ro out, but other than that, it’s about just trying to help the guys around me,” Pontius said.
Olsen sees building blocks of stardom for Pontius, as evidenced by the new deal. But for now, the coach doesn’t want him to change a thing.
“I think Chris’ focus right now shouldn’t be about being anybody he isn’t. In particular with Dwayne’s absence,” Olsen said. “He needs to just continue doing what he’s doing for us this year. If he continues down this path, getting goals and assists and contributing to us winning, he’s doing a good job.”