Exactly six months ago, Chris Pontius was still stinging from his final game as a Gaucho: an overtime playoff loss to UC Berkeley on Nov. 25 that ended the stellar senior’s career. How long ago that seems now.
Since then, Pontius has become Major League Soccer’s seventh overall draft pick, moved 2,300 miles to Washington D.C. and become a regular starter on one of the league’s best teams. The accomplishments he has had in that short span have been even more impressive. He scored a goal in his first-ever professional game, notched a stoppage-time game-winner on the road and had a goal voted the MLS Goal of the Week, to name a few. In the process, he has bolted to the forefront of the league’s Rookie of the Year discussion and turned a whole lot of heads.
By all accounts, it seems like his shift to professional soccer could hardly have gone any smoother. His coaches at D.C. United certainly seem to think so.
“Going into the draft, we felt like Chris was going to be able to make that transition and do very well,” Assistant Coach Chad Ashton said. “We’ve put him in a lot of situations, in different positions, and he’s handled it all very well.”
To say that he has been versatile at D.C. United would be an understatement. While Pontius played several positions during his time at UCSB, by his senior season he had become almost exclusively a goal-scoring forward. At United, Pontius has been moved all around the midfield and up top, thriving seemingly wherever his coaches put him.
“His role is still a little unclear,” Ashton said. “He’s done well at several positions… when you’re a rookie, you just want to get on the field.”
Pontius is just happy to be playing.
“The league has lived up to all the expectations I had,” he said, still seeming just a little star-struck in his first professional season. “I’m playing with some of the best players in the United States.”
Of course, the fact that he has been so successful might have something to do with his high spirits.
“Obviously I don’t think any rookie could expect to get off to this hot of a start,” he said.
One person who has been instrumental in facilitating Pontius’ transition is teammate Bryan Namoff. The defender, who came to D.C. United under similar circumstances as Pontius with the 15th overall pick in 2001, has taken the rookie under his wing.
“I’ve just tried to help out as much as I can, giving him advice here and there,” Namoff said. “I remember before the first game of the season, Chris looked at me and said ‘Namoff, I am so nervous for this game.’
“I just told him, ‘Make sure you complete your first pass. Once you start making passes, that translates into momentum and momentum becomes confidence.'”
Pontius took that advice and turned it into a stellar first performance, scoring a goal in front of friends and family at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Recalling the conversation with Namoff prior to the game, Pontius said, “I knew that this was my shot. … I couldn’t act like a rookie.
“I had a lot of expectations for myself. Being nervous is a good thing.”
To live up to those expectations, Pontius has been working as hard as anyone in the league.
“I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to him,” Namoff said. “It’s hard enough coming in as a rookie … his performances have exceeded expectations, even for himself.”
His coaches, meanwhile, have been very impressed by his dedication.
“He’s a guy who goes to work every day and doesn’t take anything for granted,” Ashton said. “Number one is just his work ethic. He does everything he needs to do … he’s there early, he stays late.”
However, even though Pontius leads all rookies with three goals and has yet to slow down his torrid pace (he had two goals and an assist in last week’s U.S. Open Cup qualifier against the New York Red Bulls), there is no guarantee his success will continue.
“He needs to not let his head get too big, because it is a long season,” Namoff said. “Players go through ups and downs; peaks and valleys throughout.”
Pontius agrees. “I just need to keep building on my performances and being consistent as a rookie,” he said. “Everyone says there’s a rookie wall, and I don’t want to hit that.”
He recognizes there are a lot of areas where he can still improve and is working hard to make those changes.
“I’ve got to be moving off the ball faster,” he said. “It’s the little details that count at this level.”
Ashton certainly sees a lot of potential in the rookie.
“Technically, he still can be a much better player,” the assistant coach said. “Overall, the big thing that’s going to help him is experience.
In fact, Ashton was not shy about discussing Pontius’, as well as teammate and fellow rookie Rodney Wallace’s, future prospects.
“They both have the chance to compete at the national level some day,” he said. “I think they will continue to be in the Rookie of the Year conversation for quite some time.”
But life is not only fun and games for Pontius. With his friends and former classmates at UCSB now an entire continent away from him, the would-be graduating senior cannot help but look back sometimes.
“It was hard to leave for me,” he reflected. “I had four years there — four of the best years of my life. I grew as a soccer player and as a person.
“I still miss it a lot. It hasn’t been an easy transition by any means.”
Pontius has been keeping in touch with his former teammates fairly well, though, and in fact has met a few of them on the playing field. Earlier this year, he and former Gaucho standout Eric Avila faced off against each other in a game between D.C. United and Avila’s F.C. Dallas. On one play, the two even got to go head-to-head.
“It makes it that much more fun when you know the player you’re up against,” Pontius said. And as for the result of the play? “Avi fouled me, actually. He’s a hack.”
Clearly Pontius is having a good time, and he brings a certain joy to the clubhouse as well.
“Chris is a unique individual,” Namoff said. “I don’t think he reminds me of anybody but Chris Pontius. He still has that young and boyish quality about him. … He’s almost like a younger brother.”
Despite being the new guy, and still having many things to learn, Pontius has earned a great deal of respect in his short time with United.
“The sky’s the limit,” Ashton said. “He has unlimited, untapped potential. The more he continues to play at a high level the better he’s going to get.”
Only time will tell what the former Gaucho star will achieve with his career. With all the praise being showered on him, though, one might expect the weight of expectations to be nearly unbearable. He says otherwise.
“I don’t let it bother me,” Pontius said. “I don’t want anything to get in the way of how I’m playing right now … I’m not thinking about it at all to be honest with you.”
As it stands, Pontius is just living in the present, and why not? For him, the present is a pretty nice place to be.