As D.C. United's preseason gets underway, we here at B&RU will look at a few of the team's pieces and how they can and should be used in 2012. Today, we kick the series off with fourth-year forward/midfielder Chris Pontius.
Let's rewind our mental DVRs to September 10 of last year. D.C. United spent fourteen imperious minutes to rush out to a two-goal lead at the Home Depot Center, both scored by Charlie Davies and created by Chris Pontius. Just past the hour mark, United struck on the counter, again through Davies by way of Pontius. On two of his three assists - and arguably on all three - Pontius gave up pretty solid shooting opportunities to the benefit of his (now former) teammate. Of course, just a minute after United's third goal, Pontius went into an awkward and ill-advised challenge that would break his leg and end his season.
Pontius is scheduled to resume full training March 1, just days before United's season opener March 10. While he is unlikely to feature in that first game against Sporting Kansas City, Pontius will inevitably return to D.C.'s first XI. In the meantime, United's newly acquired depth on the wings will have a chance to make its mark, and the team remains thin at forward (even with a new signing and incoming trialist). This has led some to call - including in the comments of several posts here at B&RU - for Pontius to move from midfield to forward. So let's look at the arguments and decide what we think: Should Pontius line up out left or up top once he sees the field in 2012?
We'll have it out after the jump.
Why he should stay at midfield:
Chris Pontius has become one of MLS's top left midfielders, scoring seven goals from the wing last year. His pace has allowed him to put opposing fullbacks on their heels, and he is admirably two-footed, allowing him to send in crosses from deep on the left or to cut inside onto his laser-rocket of a right foot. Wide midfield is #13's avowed favorite spot on the field, and the space he's provided on the flanks allows him to run at opponents. He typically lines up a bit higher and wider than Andy Najar, his counterpart on the right, providing the width that allows our conservative left fullbacks to stay at home and maintain the team's defensive shape. The nature of his injury shows his dedication - if not always his aptitude - to the defensive phase of the game, a necessity for wide players in any flavor of 4-4-2.
It's not clear that Pontius is the lead-the-line sort of forward United are looking for. With Charlie Davies on the team, Pontius could drop underneath and play provider, as in the Chivas USA game. Of course, that deep-lying forward position is already well looked after by Dwayne De Rosario and Josh Wolff. While our depth at wide midfielder is certainly improved by United's recent moves, it's not "there" yet, and moving our top left midfielder to another position will expose how thin we remain on the left wing.
Why he should move to forward:
Remember that three goal outburst at Chivas USA? Those three assists from Chris Pontius? Well, he lined up at forward in that game, with Dwayne De Rosario playing the attacking midfielder and Santino Quaranta on the left. Pontius showed in that game, and throughout the rest of the second half of last season, that he has an instinctual understanding with DeRo, who we have presumed will line up primarily as a second striker in 2012. Putting him in closer proximity to United's primary creator will only help foster their understanding.
Perhaps one of the better reasons to have Pontius to lead the line is his improved finishing. In fact, it might be argued that the UCSB product has become one of MLS' most clinical finishers - according to MLSsoccer.com's Climbing the Ladder column, Pontius ranks among the top five in the league at converting "big chances" (those where a player might reasonably expected to score). Putting him closer to goal will increase the number of clear cut chances he gets and improve his goal totals to go along with his developing efficiency.
Pontius's skill set will translate well to the forward line, where pace, determination and work rate are all just as useful as they are out wide. The better-than-average aerial presence he's displayed at times will also be more useful at striker.
I, for one, am somewhat undecided. At this point, I think we should withhold judgment until we see how Pontius's recovery goes and how Nick DeLeon, Maicon Santos (or whoever the First Kick starters happen to be) handle themselves. Pontius' versatility will allow us to deploy him wherever we need him. With the current state of the roster, it's not at all unlikely that he'll end up a striker for the 2012 campaign; if Ben Olsen & co. manage to bring home a proper starting forward, though, we'll have more leeway to shift Pontius back out to the left. In any event, the Black-and-Red are still at least a few pieces away (and at more than just left midfield and striker) from being able to call themselves truly deep.
Now it's your turn. Vote in the poll, and let us hear it in the comments - where should Chris Pontius line up this year, once he's healthy enough to see the field?