PHILADELPHIA—When Jim Curtin heard last winter that Chris Pontius was looking for a change of scenery, the Union head coach knew immediately that the MLS veteran would fit in well in Philadelphia.
He’d known for a while, actually.
The two had first crossed paths as players, during Pontius’ rookie season in 2009. Three years later, during a 2012 campaign during which Pontius scored 12 goals en route to MLS Best XI honors, the winger earned Curtin’s respect in a less conventional way.
Pontius was among the MLS All-Stars slated to take on recent UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea, and Curtin, who’d since moved on to a position in the Union academy, found himself out on the town with the burgeoning star.
“I’m good friends with [LA Galaxy goalkeeper] Dan Kennedy, as is Chris, and the three of us had a … we’ll call it a ‘night out,’” Curtin recalled, earlier this week. “Chris might not even remember it, but we were at a couple of bars locally here in Philly, some pretty divey, seedy bars. You get to talk to people, to know what they’re about in situations like those. I already respected him as a player, and I liked what he was about off the field as well.”
Four years later, after an offseason trade that resulted in the 29-year-old Pontius trading the black-and-red of D.C. United for the rival Union's blue-and-gold, he has been an early-season revelation in Philadelphia, showing flashes of the speed and technical ability that made him, in 2012, a US national team prospect.
It’s a welcome change of fortunes for a player coming off a seven-year stretch that at times plunged him to the depths of mental and physical turmoil – and at others put him within a stone’s throw of the upper reaches of success.
There wasn’t a singular moment when Chris Pontius realized he needed to leave D.C. United.
He had been the face of the franchise. In subway cars and on the sides of buses, Pontius appeared, arms folded, on advertisements as the club’s “workhorse.” When United’s front office needed to drum up ticket sales for College Night, they’d trot out their photogenic star. When United’s fans rounded the corner onto East Capitol Street on gameday, they were greeted by a 35-foot tall rendering of Pontius, dangling from the side of RFK Stadium.
He had earned the attention. Over the years, Pontius had endeared himself to D.C.’s fans the old-fashioned way. He was always among the hardest-working players on the field. He used his speed to stretch defenses and his footwork to elude them. He was also a company man, a leader who displayed the same penchant for loyalty as his head coach, United legend Ben Olsen.
But Pontius also earned a different reputation in the nation’s capitol. He was, fans and media said, injury-prone. It wasn’t necessarily unfair.
In 2010, a hamstring ailment required season-ending surgery. A year later, he broke his leg charging in for a loose ball. Fans praised his 2012 campaign, then faced disappointment when 2013 was plagued by injury and 2014 brought with it another hamstring surgery, one that sidelined him for most of the year. Pontius was back to play in 23 matches in 2015, but fittingly enough watched D.C.’s playoff ouster against the New York Red Bulls from a suite, injured once again.
It was time to make a change. Pontius had grown comfortable in D.C. Too comfortable. It was a sentiment that had been building all year.
“My years in D.C. were the most mentally testing years of my life and career,” Pontius told MLSsoccer.com, during the Union’s preseason training camp in Florida. “There were some very good moments – our Open Cup win in 2013, for example – and some not-so-good ones. I didn’t leave on bad terms. I just knew in my heart it was time to go. I knew I could push myself more if I got myself into a different environment.
“When I sat down with Ben and [United general manager] Dave [Kasper] at the end of , Ben understood the most, because he went through the same thing with his injuries. He explained that he had had similar thoughts when he was a player.”
Plenty of teams expressed interest in Pontius’ services once word got out that he was on the trading block. But in the Union, Pontius saw a particularly intriguing lifeline. Perennially on the outside of the playoff picture, Philly had undergone a front-office makeover, attracting the services of former US national team legend Earnie Stewart, lured back to the US from the Dutch Eredivisie.
“I’d heard good things about Earnie,” Pontius says. “And Jim was ready to throw me into a leadership position with this team. Wherever I went, I wanted to feel valued, to feel like I was going to have a real impact. So that was the No. 1 thing: There was a desire to change the attitude around the club, because [the Union] had only been in the playoffs once in their entire history. I knew that was behind them when I came here.”
It’s early yet, but Pontius’ move seems to have paid near-immediate dividends. The Union, to the surprise of many, have surged out of the gate, in no small part due to Pontius’ strong start. Two months in, the winger already has four goals, matching his total from 2014 and 2015 combined.
More importantly, he seems to have his groove back. After a hesitant few years in D.C., perhaps the mark of a player struggling with a chronic injury, Pontius is again running at defenders, going into challenges bravely on both sides of the ball.
“I think it starts defensively,” Curtin says. “I know everyone will think that’s crazy, but for me, he’s really put in a ton of work defensively. He does a good job cutting off passing lanes, makes the outside back behind him’s job easier … Then around the goal, he has special qualities. When balls bounce to him in the box, he has a pretty good way of getting on the end of things and finishing.”
Perhaps most importantly, Pontius is healthy. The injuries that plagued his time in D.C. are, for now, out of sight and out of mind.
Pontius has settled quickly in Philly, both on and off the pitch. After a recent training session, the UC Santa Barbara product jokes around with teammates before meeting a crop of media members at the far side of the field. He seems at ease.
There is, of course, more work to be done. When the midfielder sat down with Curtin in the offseason, the two laid out goals and expectations. They settled on double digits: 10 goals,10 assists.
That’s in the short term. Curtin has set his sights on the bigger picture, as well.
“We want him back in the national-team picture,” he says. “I know that might sound distant to some people, but when he and I sat down at the beginning of the year, that was the goal we set, and you can see he’s turning some heads already.”
It’s the honor, more than any other, that’s eluded Pontius throughout his career. In earlier years, he was always on the periphery, but not quite a consistent part of the USMNT picture. Every time he seemed ready to break out on to the international stage, the injury bug would strike. Many assumed Pontius’ window had closed.
But Jurgen Klinsmann’s reliance on a player like San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski – who did not break out at the club level until age 27 and debuted for the US a year later – gives some credence to Curtin’s suggestion.
“I would greatly welcome that opportunity,” Pontius says. “It’s something that obviously, as a player, you think about, but I don’t let it affect how I go about my business at the club. Even in D.C., I always just tried to take care of my business on the field, it just seemed that every time I did take care of that business, I had an injury that hampered [my national team prospects.]
“You can’t just sit there and feel sorry for yourself about the times that you were going to get called in and then an injury derailed it. So as long as we keep sailing the right ship here – and I keep putting up numbers for the squad – hopefully Jurgen takes notice. I’ll never say that ship has sailed.”
That, he hopes, is the future.
The present is a first regular-season encounter against Olsen and D.C. United, a Friday night matchup on national television (7pm ET, UniMás). It was among the first games Pontius circled when he got his hands on the Union’s 2016 schedule.
“That will be weird,” Pontius says. “Seeing Ben and all of those guys on the other side of the bench.”