Nick DeLeon staked his claim on a spot in D.C. United's starting lineup within the first 15 minutes of his first match as a professional soccer player. The rookie scored a great but somewhat meaningless goal against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, and he scored it using a move that we here like to term The Pontius Special, named after the precise player who DeLeon was replacing in the United lineup as the left midfielder.
No one would be happy to see a starting spot stolen from him, even if the replacement is now the favorite for the 2012 MLS Rookie Of The Year award. But how would Chris Pontius respond to being relegated to a reserve role? Would he pout on the bench? Would he whine to the press about how he thinks he deserves more chances? No, Pontius isn't one of those davies who thinks past success should earn him a permanent spot in the starting 11. He adapted his game. He took up another position.
He went out and earned his way back in.
When Pontius was drafted by United in 2009, we thought he was being drafted to play as a forward. But since then he's spent almost his entire MLS career in the midfield. He was even soehned into a central holding midfield role for a few games his rookie season. With three years of MLS action now under his belt, this is the first time that Pontius is really getting the opportunity to establish himself as a starting forward, and he's making it count.
I spoke to Pontius after the Montreal Impact game in which he played all 90 minutes as a forward, but failed to get on the scoreboard. Disappointed, Pontius told me that he needs to improve in his transition to forward. "Just gotta hold the ball and be more of a physical presence," he said. "I didn't do that enough tonight. And I've got to take my opportunities better." He did just that four days later against the New York Red Bulls.
Let this serve as a message to Branko Boskovic, Andy Najar, and Hamdi Salihi. Just like Pontius, these players have been forced out of the starting lineup, mostly due not to their own inefficiencies, but due more to the success of others. And like Pontius, they've each been given opportunities to prove that they belong in the starting lineup. But unlike Pontius, they've yet to capitalize on those opportunities. It won't necessarily take a hat trick, but it will take more than Boskovic, Najar, and Salihi have shown to date for them to earn more playing time on such a talented attacking team.
Pontius was very quietly one of United's most important players in 2011. His seven goals and five assists were each career highs, and the team suddenly fell apart when he broke his leg in September. They won only once in nine games without him. Would D.C. have made the playoffs last year if Pontius hadn't suffered an injury? We'll never know, but he's been working his way back to full health ever since. With 177 minutes on the field in the past week, it's safe to say now that his fitness level has returned. "Surprisingly I feel pretty good," Pontius told me in the locker room Wednesday night. "Even at the end of the game, I'm still going, making some runs. My body held up pretty well."
If it holds up the entire season, United will continue to be one of the biggest threats in MLS.