WASHINGTON – Though D.C. United relied mostly on reserves to defeat Panamanian club Tauro on Wednesday evening, two of the big names in the 18 provided the scoring in their 2-0 victory.
Chris Pontius and Eddie Johnson scored second-half goals within minutes of each other, powering the home side to victory and clinching the first CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal berth since the tournament went to its current format in 2008-09.
Both players took the pitch recently recovered from injury: Johnson was playing his first match in over three weeks after suffering a concussion in training in late August. Pontius, meanwhile, missed a good deal more time. The 2012 MLS Best XI selection found himself penciled into a starting lineup for the first time since late 2013, having recently returned to active duty after recovering from surgery on his left hamstring and sciatic nerve.
"It was great to see [Chris] back, and Eddie as well,” United head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after his side’s victory. “Both of them did a very good job, and we were gonna be a different team if we didn’t have one of those guys out there. So they shared minutes, and they both put on very good performances and led the line well.”
Pontius – who started the match up top as opposed to his more traditional role out wide – was active during the game’s opening 45 minutes. He had several quality exchanges and nearly found the opener 11 minutes in when Alex Caskey whipped a ball into the box which Pontius nodded goalward, inches wide of the far post.
There was also the rust expected from a player who last started a competitive match close to a year ago.
Just minutes into the game’s second stanza, however, Pontius found himself on the end of another ball, this one swung in by Ghanian international Samuel Inkoom. He didn’t miss that time.
“I was a little frustrated with myself in the first half,” Pontius reflected after the match. "I had a little monkey on my back and had to get it off. I only had 10 minutes or so in the second half to do it. It was a good ball by Sammy, and I was just trying to put it on frame.
"I think this [performance] gives me confidence,” he added. "Every game I’ve stepped in, I’ve gotten on the ball more. The game situations are bar-none. Being able to run at players, being able to get the goal – those are things that are going to build my confidence, along with going 60 or 55 minutes tonight for my fitness. It was good.”
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Pontius, who on Wednesday speculated that he could’ve pushed himself beyond those 53 minutes, steps back into a United squad that has changed drastically since he was an every-day starter. Chris Rolfe – currently sidelined with a broken arm – has emerged as a consistent contributor at Pontius’ normal position on the wing, while Fabián Espíndola and Luis Silva have performed exceedingly well at forward, where Pontius also contributes from time to time.
It’s a fact the UCSB grad is aware of. Though he could improve his fitness enough to start consistently before year’s end, Pontius takes little for granted.
"Right now, my role is to push the people in front of me,” said Pontius. "It’s not my spot right now. I’ve got to work my way back into the lineup. The guys that are sitting ahead of me have done a great job this year, obviously, and that’s why we’re in the position that we’re in. So my job is to push those guys every day in training and try and work my way back in the lineup any way I can."