CHESTER, Pa. – For a lot of athletes, getting into a routine and finding long-term stability with one team is something to be relished.
For Chris Pontius, it was something he desperately wanted to escape.
And now, after seven up-and-down years with D.C. United, the oft-injured winger feels like a new beginning with the Philadelphia Union is exactly what he needs to revive a career that’s been filled with both tantalizing promise and frustrating setbacks.
“Seven years in one place, it was a long time,” Pontius told reporters following Philly’s second preseason training session Tuesday. “I felt like I got into too much of a routine, and I wasn’t pushing myself every day like I know I could. And I knew Philly’s a place where I can change things up and give me a fresh start.”
Pontius, to be sure, certainly enjoyed some memorable moments during his lengthy stint in D.C., especially in 2012 when he finished with 12 goals, was named to the MLS Best XI and scored a goal in the All-Star Game – at Talen Energy Stadium, his new home.
But the 28-year-old midfielder couldn’t stay on the field enough to build on that success, averaging 1,188 minutes per season over the last three years in D.C. while scoring a total of six goals during that span. His 2010 and 2011 campaigns were also cut short due to injuries.
“I think that was the biggest thing for me – every time I walked into that stadium, I thought about injuries,” said Pontius, who the Union acquired last month in exchange for general and targeted allocation money. “Here it’s a fresh start, and I don’t think about any of that. I just think about going out and playing with the guys.”
Pontius acknowledged that he feels “100 percent” health-wise heading into the 2016 season. And he’s already shown what he can do through two days of training with head coach Jim Curtin saying “he scored a good goal and set up a few” more during Tuesday’s session inside the bubble at Penn Park.
Curtin expects to see more of that from Pontius, who he plans to mostly use on the wing in his 4-3-3 system but will also “come inside and be a guy that makes it uncomfortable” for the defense.
“I’ve always liked Chris as a player,” said Curtin, adding that the Union were aggressive in pursuing him because there were several West Coast teams interested in his service. “Dating back three or four years ago, he’s a guy I wanted to bring to Philadelphia. The opportunity presented itself this offseason, and we were able to make it happen. He’s a guy who’s won, who’s played in big games and brings maturity to the group.
“And he’s special around goal. He’s a guy who’s capable of eight to 10 goals and eight to 10 assists. Those are the goals we’ll set for him this year.”
Of course, Curtin knows that goal may not be attainable if he misses time due to injuries. But the Union head coach expressed optimism that Pontius can avoid some of the “unlucky” injuries that have bitten him in the past and that the club’s sports performance department will “keep a good eye on him” to make sure he’s not rushed back too soon from minor knocks.
Pontius, too, is hopeful a change of scenery will help him find some better luck as he tries to regain the form from a few years ago that had him earning call-ups to the US national team.
“The worst thing is knowing you can play at a certain level and your body’s not allowing you to,” Pontius said. “That was the worst thing for me. I had a good staff around me in D.C. and good teammates that kept me mentally checked in every day. But you have your dark days when things aren’t going your way and your body doesn’t feel right.
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“Those injuries lingered over my head in D.C., and I never felt like I was playing freely. Even today, I felt like I was playing with a weight lifted off my shoulder.”
There are, to be sure, some differences for Pontius as he adjusts to his first new club in seven years. For starters, he’s trying to learn a different formation and style that he said focuses more on possession and “numbers in the middle.” He’s also embracing his new teammates – onetime rivals that “got the blood flowing” during some of the classic matchups between D.C. and Philly over the last couple of years.
But, at this point of his career, change is a good thing.
“It got very monotonous for me in D.C., and I felt like I needed a shakeup,” Pontius said. “This was the perfect move for me.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.