WASHINGTON – Opening day is just one month away, and D.C. United's Chris Pontius already has big plans for 2014.
"The goal for this year? To win MLS Cup," Pontius told MLSsoccer.com with a wry smile. "I'd like to win the Open Cup, I’d like to win MLS Cup and I'd like to go far in CONCACAF [Champions League.]"
Overly optimistic? Maybe. But it's hard to fault the 26-year-old winger for his outlook. After a historically bad 2013 campaign, United have completely retooled their roster, saying goodbye to a number of familiar faces while welcoming 13 new ones. Entering his sixth year with the club, the still relatively youthful Pontius is now the club's most tenured player, a role he embraces.
"I welcome that responsibility," Pontius said. "But we have other guys as well – Davy [Arnaud] has captained Montreal for years. Bobby [Boswell] is a voice in the locker room, a leader. Sean [Franklin] is the same.
"This isn’t about one person, it's not up to one person to convey the message from the coaches to the locker room. It’s up to a number of players this year, and I think it’s good to be that way. I don’t think it’s just one guy that these guys are going to be hearing."
After off-\season surgery to repair a damaged left hamstring – the same procedure he had on his right hamstring in 2010 – Pontius finds himself working towards full health, noting, "I've just started doing sprint work and stuff like that."
It's a position he's all too familiar with. A broken leg cost him much of 2011; a nagging groin injury kept him at partial strength for much of 2013. Thoughts of a national team call-up – Pontius has been mentioned repeatedly over the years as a potential USMNT contributor – have almost always been squashed by an unfortunately timed injury.
"Every time, with surgery, you go through a period where you feel like you’ve hit a wall, and then you turn a corner," Pontius reflected. "Progressively you get better, and that’s where I’ve been at for the past couple of weeks. With this surgery, I think it was more of a relief to just go get it done. Hopefully in the future I won’t have any more problems with it."
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When Pontius finally does regain his form and fitness, he'll be faced with a completely different task: finding a rhythm with his new teammates – perhaps most importantly, oft-discussed forward Eddie Johnson.
Though many pundits and outside observers approach Johnson's acquisition with a healthy dose of skepticism, Pontius doesn't seem bothered by the suggestion that the former Seattle Sounder might be a distraction in the locker room.
"He hasn’t done anything wrong to me," Pontius said. "I’ve had interactions with Eddie and every one has been positive. I think many of the other guys have had nothing but the same. We're going to welcome him with open arms and get him into this group as soon as he can.
"Getting EJ is huge: We’re bringing in a guy who’s been pretty brilliant over the past couple of years, not only with Seattle but with the national team. Not only to have him on the field with us but to have his experience in talking some of the younger guys, and to help build some hype around this team."
And that 2013 campaign, the one that saw United set several records for all-time futility? When asked if it weighed heavily on him, Pontius remains typically optimistic.
"I wouldn’t say it was fun by any means, coming in here and losing so many games," he replied. "But it’s nice to hit the reset button with a new group of guys, a new goal in mind for the 2014 season. It’s been nice to have all of these fresh faces in here.
"It really does feel like a new season – 2013 is in the past, we don’t have to linger on that."