"The Word" is MLSsoccer.com's weekly long-form series. This week, correspondent Charles Boehm looks at the rise of Chris Pontius, who went from an overlooked high school player in talent-rich Southern California to a star at UC Santa Barbara, and then matured into the face of D.C. United's franchise. Is his first shot with the US national team next?
WASHINGTON – Chris Pontius was in a good mood earlier this week for an extended one-on-one interview, and that was certainly surprising.
It was a typical in-season weekday at RFK Stadium, and Pontius and his D.C. United teammates had just walked back into the venerable old concrete bowl at the conclusion of their late-morning practice at the RFK auxiliary grounds.
Most players would typically rank the prospect of a half-hour sitdown with members of the media somewhere alongside a dip in the ice baths or a trip to the dentist. But on this occasion it allowed the winger to skip a team Pilates session, so he was downright enthusiastic about it, even cracking jokes about sticking around for longer than our appointed time.
By now, however, Pontius is used to interview requests. And community appearances, and photo shoots for ad campaigns, and even the occasional runway appearance at fashion shows. With rare attacking skills and pin-up good looks, he's become the longest-tenured player and on-field face of his proud franchise just as his coach, Ben Olsen, once was.
“I need to get a wife, don’t I? So they can stop putting me on the college night ads,” he wisecracked when I asked him about his sex-symbol status and crossover appeal (sorry, ladies: he's now five months into a committed relationship). “I just laugh about it.
“I’m getting older now, you can see I’m not the 21-year-old that I was when I came in here. I think when you come straight out of college, all publicity is good; you love it.”
D.C. United's Chris Pontius against Real Salt Lake on March 13. He's started all three games for DC this season.
- USA TODAY Sports
Unlike many players who settle in the suburbs, the Yorba Linda, Calif., native has always lived in the region's urban core, first in the District of Columbia proper and now in the hip Courthouse neighborhood of nearby Arlington, Va.
“The first year out in D.C. was a bit of culture shock for me. I'd moved away from everything I knew,” he said. “But I really do enjoy D.C. The people and the community have taken me in, the fans have been great to me and obviously the organization. It's hard not to like it here. It's a wonderful city.”
While he arrived in the midst of United's long-running search for a new stadium and a four-year playoff drought that, for some, tarnished the club's illustrious brand, he did not hesitate to embrace a highly visible role in the Black-and-Red's long climb back to prominence.
“He's a positive, positive guy. I think he's starting to really love this team and this organization and feel part of it, and feel responsibility towards the club,” Olsen said. “You want a guy with Chris' personality in that role.”
After United sought to reward him for his 25 goals and 13 assists in his first four seasons and secure his services for the long term with a new contract last year, Pontius resisted the lure of Europe to sign on the dotted line.
“I’m an extremely loyal person, especially when I’m treated well,” he said. “I became loyal to this club. Obviously I thought about Europe. I’m not ruling it out by any means. If a club wants me, they can come and buy me – just like [former Houston Dynamo defender] Geoff Cameron, he signed a contract maybe a year before he got bought [by Stoke City]. I enjoy playing here and I think the league’s only going to keep going up in its talent and its markets.
“Hopefully we can get something done with the stadium, I’d like to be a part of that here. I took everything into consideration and this just felt right to me.”
His progress can be measured in other ways, too. Pontius often draws double-, even triple-marking from opposing defenses. He exchanges texts regularly with US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose hopes of working him into the USMNT mix have repeatedly been foiled by poorly timed injuries, with a troublesome groin strain, a broken leg and a severe and chronic hamstring problem having disrupted his form over the past three years.
And therein lies the rub. Because if anyone in MLS is primed and eager for a leap to “the next level” that Klinsmann says he wants to help American players reach, it's Pontius.
The vault to genuine superstar status, however, has been elusive.
It's actually a marvel that Chris Pontius even made it onto his college team, much less to the point he's reached now.
“Chris was the last recruit in his recruiting class – he was officially the last recruit,” UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg told MLSsoccer.com. “My assistant coach Greg Wilson is from the East Coast and he often tells me it’s only in California that players like this could be missed.
“Oftentimes, there are a lot of good players that are pretty high-level, and it can get down to a little bit of apples and oranges when you put them on your roster.”
As a youth, Pontius played his club soccer for Irvine Strikers, a SoCal powerhouse which has churned out quality pro prospects like Benny Feilhaber, Jordan Harvey, Chad Marshall and Jonathan Bornstein over the years. Strong competition meant he had to settle for a spot on the B team in his age group, and he says only one NCAA program – the University of Tulsa – recruited him on the basis of his club play.
Pontius was taken No. 7 overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, and went on to post four goals and three assists during his rookie year.
- Getty Images
“I kind of flew under the radar for a while,” he recalled. “I was maybe a little bit of a late bloomer.”
But high school soccer, widely derided in some US developmental circles, provided a back-door route. Pontius was a dominant central midfielder for Servite High School in Orange County and a video of one of his performances drew Vom Steeg's attention.
“Our coach had a relationship with UCSB’s coaches before, he’d sent a couple players there via highlight videos and the players had ended up working out well,” Pontius said. “My high school coach [Mike Lussier] called UCSB and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got another one you may want to look at.’ [Vom Steeg] took a look at the video and then came down the next week and watched one of our games, and he offered me a spot on the team right after that.”
A holding midfielder originally, Pontius was fielded at right back at the beginning of his college career before the combined effects of a team-wide goal drought and an injury crisis prompted Vom Steeg to try him in a more advanced role on the left wing. It was a smashing success, as the Gauchos won the 2006 national championship and Pontius scored 25 goals in his final two seasons.
“He started to run away from people,” Vom Steeg said. “He started to figure out, say his sophomore, junior year, what really worked for him on the field.”
His range, two-footedness, dribbling skills and nose for goal led United to make him their first pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft (No. 7 overall), and he burst onto the pro scene with a well-taken goal just over an hour into D.C.'s season opener, setting the stage for a strong rookie campaign.
Pontius's case was highly unconventional, at least compared to the typical blue-chip talent that the nation's youth development system is supposed to groom for pro and international success.
WATCH: Pontius finishes off his first career hat trick in win over the New York Red Bulls in April 2012.
“Completely different," he said. “I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer because everyone takes different paths. For me, obviously the [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy probably wouldn’t have worked out. Or it may have worked out later on. It just wasn’t the club soccer.
“It was high school soccer for me. Everyone has a different path, and this is my path.”
And he's continued to develop his skill set in MLS, where predecessors like Stuart Holden and Clint Dempsey have laid down many examples of how much growth can occur in a pro training environment long after the textbook developmental window has closed.
“Chris is an example of what I always think is great about Major League Soccer – and extend it out to the national team,” Vom Steeg said. “MLS gives players who might’ve been drafted really low, or maybe not ever drafted, an option to get onto a team. And then two or three years later you find out that the player is really good, [even] for the national team, though they haven’t come through the blue chip ranks, played at academy level, been called into residency, the whole deal.”
Pontius turns 26 in May, and when it comes to making that aforementioned leap, the clock is ticking for both him and his team.
United have added new owners, staged a front-office makeover and intensified their hunt for a new home, and hope to seal a deal with city officials on a site at Buzzards Point in Southwest D.C. this year.
The team surprised many observers with a workmanlike playoff run to last year's Eastern Conference Championship, but face the arguably tougher task of consolidating their position as an MLS Cup contender and meeting the expectations that they have set for themselves. Pontius is needed in that effort, just as he himself must prove that he can be a consistent, durable matchwinner who is capable and ready to do the same for the national team.
Pontius after suffering a broken leg during a match against Chivas USA in September 2011.
- Getty Images
“The trick for Chris now this year is to deal with teams circling his name before the match,” Olsen said this week. “When they play us, teams are now saying, 'We have to double him, we have to be physical with him, we have to take him out of the game.' And that's a difficult thing to deal with.”
Pontius has been unlucky with the timing of his ailments – “Somehow I always manage to really screw that one up!” he jokes – and the pattern has continued this year.
The groin problem that ended his 2012 playoffs prematurely seems to have played a role in his quiet start to the new season – right when an injury crisis in the USMNT has Klinsmann pondering his MLS options more than ever before. (Pontius was on U.S. Soccer's initial list of potential call-ups for this month's World Cup qualifiers, but did not make the final roster.)
“My call will come when my call will come. I only control what goes on here. Some stuff is out of my hands and I realize that,” he said. “I'd like to be playing a lot better with D.C.
“Every time I get the ball one-on-one, I'm seeing another defender flash down, so I need to figure it out – I think I just need to be on the move a lot more. I need to be a hard player to contain, with the ball and without the ball. ... I need to be able to understand how the game is reading. My movement off the ball can be so much better.”
The painstaking process of day-by-day personal growth continues, even as the stakes get higher and the tasks tougher.
“How does he still influence games when teams are out to stop him? That's a tough thing,” Olsen said. “I hope he figures out how to be unstoppable, no matter if it's one or two that are coming at him.
“Because I think we have a star here.”