WASHINGTON – Smack dab in the middle of their busiest travel stretch of the season, D.C. United may be about to see the return of a much-needed set of fresh legs: Chris Pontius.
The midfielder hasn’t seen a minute of action in 2014, sidelined after offseason surgery to repair a damaged left hamstring and a subsequent surgery in April to repair an issue with his sciatic nerve in the same leg.
“[Chris] is a great option,” head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after his team’s training session on Wednesday. "It comes at a very good time and every day he looks a little bit sharper and more like he’s ready to step into a game. Barring any setbacks, I’m sure in the next week or two we could see him in the 18 and see him step into a game.”
While it remains to be seen exactly when Pontius will make his return – the team clearly has no interest in rushing an injured player’s recovery – the 2012 MLS Best XI honoree could see the 18 as soon as this weekend’s road match against the Vancouver Whitecaps (Saturday, 10 pm ET, MLS LIVE). Still, next week’s encounter with the New York Red Bulls seems like a more realistic target date, sparing Pontius the rigors of the cross-country voyage.
Though Pontius will likely start once he regains his match fitness, he will in the meantime provide United with depth on the wings and perhaps even at forward, where he’s made several appearances in the past. The club could use the help: aside from their travel demands, United are also facing down the barrel of a potential playoff run and are in the midst of CONCACAF Champions’ League group stage play.
Pontius began his rehab slowly several months ago, jogging on the sidelines and doing work in the team’s weight room. Three weeks ago, he resumed training in full and promptly got a bit of a reality check.
“I went out there and practiced the first couple of days and I was lagging behind everyone,” Pontius reflected. "My decision making was slow – it doesn’t matter how much soccer you’ve watched, there’s nothing like being out there especially when you have to make important decisions when your legs are gone.”
During his absence, United have taken care of business on the pitch, scripting, to this point, the greatest single-season turnaround in MLS history. Pontius has enjoyed watching those events unfold, but in a way they’ve also been a maddening exercise in patience.
“It’s been a pleasure to watch them,” he reflected, “It’s made it easier that they’ve done so well, but it’s made me want to get on the field that much more.”
It’s a mental exercise that’s all-too-familiar to his head coach. Olsen spent several stretches of his career rehabilitating from a series of ankle injuries, and on Wednesday he stressed the importance of having the right frame of mind about a long-term ailment.
"I talked to Chris about this at one point,” said Olsen. "When your’e out for that long, you need an outlet. I chose to throw paint on a canvas. I think it’s important to step away and find something to get some steam off.”
- Get more United news at DCUnited.com
Pontius has his own outlets. He’s taken to biking through Virginia and Maryland, and according to Olsen, “has elevated his ping pong game to a new level.” And though his schedule has differed from that of his teammates, the midfielder typically hangs out for a couple of hours before leaving RFK, choosing instead to continue building bonds with his teammates, many of whom he’s never played a competitive minute with.
"These guys have different movements,” said Pontius. "I can watch the games all I want and try and understand where they like the ball, etc., but it's completely different when you put that into a training or a game.”
Should Pontius not make the trip to Vancouver this weekend, he’ll remain in DC. A ping pong match may await, or a bike ride. Or perhaps he’ll take after his head coach and pick up a paint brush? Probably not.
"I’m a terrible artist,” the midfielder said, chuckling. "I can’t even draw a stick figure."