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Pontius makes 2014 home league debut as Silva powers United past Union

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The Black and Red moved six points atop the table as their longest-tenured player made his home league debut after an 11-month layoff.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The rehab was supposed to last half as long, but after five months had passed, D.C. United's longest-tenured player realized nothing had changed. So he went under the knife once again, and the wait reset itself.

One month on crutches. Two months without running or jogging. Seven more on the sidelines, helplessly watching the game he couldn't play.

Finally — 11 months after his last home game — D.C.'s soccer club found itself united once again.

Chris Pontius, a member of the Black and Red since 2009, played the final 29 minutes of the club's 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union, his first home league appearance since DCU's loss to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals Oct. 27 of last year.

"It's tough, you know? I've been itching to get back out there," Pontius said. "But at the same time, it's been good to get wins. Last year, we really didn't put the product on the field that we should've. It's been good to watch that [success], in a sense, but it's also only made me itch to get out there more."

Pontius, who featured as a forward substitute Wednesday against Waterhouse FC in CONCACAF Champions League play, entered in the 61st to a rousing ovation from the announced RFK Stadium crowd of 19,478.

The 27-year-old said he's been training fully for the past month or so, and it'd appear that his newfound roster reinforcement is coming at a perfect time for his carreer-long club: The Union marked United's 14th opponent in the past 8 ½ weeks, and injuries to players such as Chris Rolfe and Jeff Parke have further depleted head coach Ben Olsen's reserves.

With Rolfe out, Olsen shifted usual starting right back Sean Franklin into the right midfield on Saturday, then opting to start Taylor Kemp at left back and Chris Korb on the right. The move paid off just 10 minutes into the game, too, when Korb lofted a cross onto the leaping head of Luis Silva towards the back post, and Silva placed it into the left side netting from there.

Silva, 25, now has 11 goals on the season — tying him with Toronto's Jermain Defoe for 12th in MLS.

"His confidence is just so high right now," Olsen said. "He's got a little bit of everything in his locker when it comes to scoring goals, and we see that a lot. He's calm, his composure's there and technically, he's very sound in all aspects of scoring."

Silva now has scored six goals in the last eight games, with United compiling a 4-2-2 record over that stretch.  The first of those games — a 3-0 thrashing of Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 23 — helped D.C. vault into first place in the Eastern Conference, a spot it has more than simply maintained since that point: Saturday's result moved the Black and Red six points clear of Kansas City and New England atop the East, after the Revs topped SKC, 3-2, on Friday at Sporting Park.

But the win over Philadelphia didn't come nearly as easily as Olsen admitted he would have liked, with Carlos Valdes clearing two shots off the line in the 27th minute and several prime counterattacking opportunities in the second half going to waste. A late Perry Kitchen yellow card, which will cause him to miss Friday's match, didn't help.

And for a player still looking to regain his fitness, Pontius was forced to backtrack from his wide-midfield position for the majority of his 29-minute cameo Saturday, as United retracted into a shell against the visitors' pressure.

"I would've liked to get on the ball a bit more," Pontius joked afterward. "I'm getting close [physically], but you only get real close when you're playing 90 minutes every weekend. I'm a bit of a ways away from that, but I think I'll get there with a few more games."

Said Olsen: "The running in wide midfield, as Chris found out today, is a lot different than running up top. It's just constant.  But because he's gonna fit into that role in some point, we have to get his fitness up there. ...

"He's getting there. I think today was big for him, especially in that position, especially when we were grinding there for the last 20 minutes. It's a lot of work to get forward and then also have to come back and do all the dirty work.

"I'm happy for him. It's just so nice to have him back in the fold."

When Pontius is healthy, United is hopeful he can be the same weapon he was during his healthy 2012 campaign, when the California native scored 12 goals - six of them game-winners - and added four assists in 31 appearances.

So yes, Pontius has been away a while. But that high-flying menace on the wings is the version of him that his longer-tenured teammates most remember.

"It means a lot" having Pontius back, goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. "He can play numerous roles - he can play out wide, he can play up top. He's very dynamic, and we need that going into a stretch like this because he's dangerous.

"Teams can't handle his movement, and he can hit a ball from distance. He can hit a ball on the move first-time. So it's great having him back, and it's going to be a great and vital piece for us going into the playoffs."

Pontius is thinking the same thing In most players' eyes, the worst stretch of the season is now (finally) over. After back-to-back weeks of Champions League action, and 14 matches in total over the past 8 ½ weeks, only one weekday game — a now-meaningless trip to Tauro FC on Oct. 21 — remains on the schedule.

Olsen noted after the game that the team would get the next two days off, then, and but count Pontius among those who won't be relishing the break. Even while the fans erupted as he stepped on the field Saturday, he said, he was all business.

From here, he's looking to make up for lost time.

"To be honest, I heard [the crowd] a bit, and then I went into game mode," Pontius said. "But they've always supported me, and I'd like to thank them for that.

"Hopefully we can bring them some more silverware this year."

Pontius and Co. are another step closer to that after Saturday.