For most of the 90 minutes last night during the clash between D.C. United and the LA Galaxy, United players, coaches, and fans had a frustrated edge. Never was the opportunity to end their winless streak against the Galaxy going to be greater, with the 5-time MLS Cup champions without their two leading goal scorers.
Yet chance after chance went begging for the Black-and-Red. Nick DeLeon skipped past Galaxy keeper Brian Rowe in the first half, only to not be able to recover the ball to get a shot off with an empty net. Chris Pontius had several wasted opportunities in the second half, to include a poor ball for DeLeon on a counter attack, failing to get a shot away in the box from a Chris Rolfe pass, and sending a header straight towards Rowe with plenty to aim for.
But Pontius, playing for all 90 minutes for the second time since the end of the 2013 season, and United, were awarded for their persistence, as Pontius scored his first goal of the season in the third minute of stoppage time to lift United to a 1-0 victory over the Galaxy.
"Not only this game but past games, you know you just have to have short term memory and leave that stuff and keep yourself alive," Pontius said of his spurned chances after the game. "That penalty kick didn't feel good, obviously. Like I said, short term memory."
The penalty kick miss in stoppage time last week against the New York Red Bulls, coupled with the missed chances on Saturday night, meant that Pontius still only had one goal to his name in MLS since his return from injury last September. But as the clock wound down at RFK, Pontius popped up to head home the winner, handing United their first victory over LA since a 4-1 thrashing in 2008.
"I thought he was serving it the first time," Pontius said of the move by DeLeon. "But then once I saw him dink it over I was trying to get across [Dan] Gargan in case it came across. It did and I just tried to put if on frame after that."
There was nothing easy about the goal scoring play, and it took several excellent plays to even happen. Conor Doyle, on as a sub for Jairo Arrieta in the second half, challenged a ball in the air against Rowe. Rowe won out, but was only to punch the ball, allowing United to cycle the ball back around.
Davy Arnaud, who had a wonderful long ball in the first half to create the chance for DeLeon, again lifted a ball over the back line for DeLeon. But with left back Robbie Rogers draped over him, it took some innovation from DeLeon to get the ball into a dangerous area. A flick of the ball over Rogers did just that for DeLeon, and allowing him space to send the ball towards the back post.
There was still plenty left for Pontius to do to get the goal, mind. He had to work his way back towards the ball, which is never easy, and made even tougher that Gargan was right there with him. Pontius won that battle though, and made no mistake with the header, sending it home before Rowe could recover to get back to the far post.
"Throughout the game today we were breaking out in the second half, and we just weren't clean enough," Pontius added. "You need to take care of yourself, that's rustiness of early in the season, but it's nice to get one at the end of the game and get a win."
After the game, Pontius had the support of his teammates, including the guy who had the all important assist, who could have also rued earlier missed chances in the game.
"Yeah [Chris] is getting sharper and sharper as we go, and his goals will come,"DeLeon told reporters after the game. "It's good he started early in the year so hopefully he can keep that up throughout the year."
It's been a long road back for Pontius, who had his best season in 2012, when he scored 12 times in the league, and was named to the MLS All-Stars. In the two seasons since then however, hamstring injuries have limited Pontius to just 28 games, and 22 starts, in which he scored just three times.
As he has finally come around fitness wise from his hamstring issues, Pontius was having issues with his sharpness and being able to connect with his teammates. Not all that surprising for someone who had missed such a significant amount of time, but it also led to Pontius being pulled early in the first three games of the season.
He went all 90 last week against NYRB, but had some trouble getting involved in the game, and then blazed a penalty well over the bar late in the match. It seemed like his missed chances earlier in the game were going to cost United two points against LA, before he popped up late to score the winner.
"I thought Chris [Pontius] was working too hard last week on the defensive end," United manager Ben Olsen said of his midfielder's performance last week. "Tonight he was in good spots and constantly threatening the back line. As the season goes he will start to do better with those other opportunities."
The 93rd minute against LA proved just that..