It would be hard to imagine things going any better for Chris Pontius over the last 12 months.
Reinvigorated by joining the Philadelphia Union after seven up-and-down seasons in D.C., the 29-year-old winger finished with 12 goals and six assists last year to help the Union qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. It was enough to make him the MLS Comeback Player of the Year and earn him his first US national team cap.
But now that he’s back from a recent stint with the national team, Pontius is prepared to take yet another leap in his career and apply many of the lessons he learned from his first two USMNT appearances — in friendlies vs. Serbia on Jan. 29 and Jamaica on Feb. 3 — with him into the 2017 MLS season.
“You definitely have more confidence,” Pontius told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “You’re a little bit more fit than everyone else just because you had a few more weeks of preseason. (And) you got to play in two games, so you have that game experience as well. All of these things help you hit the ground running with Philly.”
Pontius will be the first to admit that he wishes he had done more in those two USMNT games. Still, just getting the opportunity to step onto the field was special after all the injuries he dealt with since being invited to his first camp in 2010.
“I was just trying to cherish the moment,” he said. “There were certainly nerves about it — but good nerves about finally getting to play with the national team. I was really happy to receive a cap and get a little taste of it. And then you want more.”
But Pontius isn’t thinking about when his next US call-up might be — only what he can do to improve in MLS play after a career-defining year in 2016. With that improvement, he knows, more opportunities will likely come.
“Just be consistent,” he said. “Be consistent and be healthy. Those are my focuses. The goals, the assists, the wins, they will come as long we continue to build off what we did as a team last year. For me to impact the game and help this team, I need to be healthy and consistent on the field.”
Pontius said he’s also prepared to take on a bigger leadership role in his second season in Philly and be what he called “more of a voice in the locker room.”
Sure, there’s been a little bit of playoff ribbing from his teammates since he arrived at preseason camp following his USMNT stint. But some guys have also been picking his brain about what the experience was like and others have noticed an even sharper player since last season.
“He came back confident,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “That’s natural after playing with the best players in our country. I thought he performed well in the games and you can see in training that he’s got a little bounce in his step.”