Bruce Arena: Chris Pontius' long-time MLS play earned him USMNT call-up

Chris Pontius at USMNT camp in February 2017

NASHVILLE — One of the current USMNT roster’s most fairytale-like stories came to an end – at least for the team’s current camp – on Wednesday. That’s when US Soccer announced that Israeli-American midfielder Kenny Saief would be returning to his home club, Belgium’s K.A.A. Gent, to recover from a groin injury.

“Kenny came here with a little bit of an injury and wasn’t able to overcome it,” explained US head coach Bruce Arena on Thursday morning, after the team’s last training session at Nashville’s Lipscomb University. “It’s best that he goes back to his club, gets healthy, and puts himself in position for future call-ups.”

For Saeif fans, that last bit provides a glimmer of hope – the door’s still open for the 23-year-old, who only changed his FIFA association to the US in June. And for Philadelphia Union fans, Saief’s departure provided another welcome opening, for Chris Pontius to step up. 

While the choice may have left a little bit of social media head-scratching, Arena did, after all, tip him for the 40-man roster. And while the Union themselves have struggled, Pontius’ work rate has proven a bright spot, with the 30-year-old recording six assists in 17 league appearances this season. 

In fact, the Union currently sit at eighth place in the East, a position not too dramatically different from theirs in early June, when Arena selected the 40-man roster. That Pontius still earned a call-up without playing for a flashy team bodes well for US hopefuls across MLS under Arena’s current tenure. 

“We had him in January,” Arena said of Pontius’ appearance at the national team’s winter camp earlier this year. “I’ve known him for a lot of years watching him in the league. He’s a good player; he was going to be one of our back-ups in that position.”

Given that plan for backups, and the length of the Gold Cup overall, that means it’s likely at least a few more MLSers on the 40-man will find themselves called up as the stages wear on. And they can expect Arena to watch them closely for the biggest stage of them all in the game.

“Clearly at this point, you look and you project out and say, there are players here who can continue with the full team and help us in the World Cup qualifying,” Arena said, “and hopefully compete for a position in the World Cup in 2018.”

So will Pontius and some of his fellow names in the original 40-man roster make the cut? First, everyone says, the US just needs to get past Panama, who they face in their first Gold Cup match this Saturday at Nissan Stadium (4:30 pm ET, FOX and Univision in the US). 

“Maybe the second game will be harder or the third. We don’t know that. Our only focus is on the game on Saturday,” Arena said of the match-up. “We know Panama quite well, and I’m sure they know us, so it’s going to be a real battle and hopefully we’re the team that comes out on top."