So I'm a day or two late on this post, depending on how you look at it. Nick DeLeon will wear number 14 (a change from the 18 he wore the last two years) for D.C. United this year, and Chris Pontius will continue wearing his 13 shirt. But today there are only 12 days until the season opener March 8 at RFK, which means we should be talking about Luis Silva, but his change to wear 11 means today is free for me to catch up. Got all that? Good.
So, DeLeon and Pontius. Both were in fantastic form in 2012, Pontius claiming a spot in the league's Best XI and DeLeon coming just short of MLS Rookie of the Year honors. United would finish second in the Eastern Conference come tantalizingly close to a berth in the MLS Cup final. And then 2013 happened. Both Pontius and DeLeon were out injured for portions of the season and weren't nearly as effective as they were in 2012 then they did see the field. We all know what happened with the team's league campaign.
Which is why so many prognosticators argue that as go CP13 and NDL, so will go United. Fittingly, it was Nicky who set up United's first goal of the preseason on Saturday, whipping in a dangerous cross, which Houston's David Horst nodded into his own net. Unfortunately, Pontius has yet to dress for a single preseason game this year as he recovers from offseason hamstring surgery. With all the new faces and the tactical experimentation Ben Olsen is incorporating, preseason is even more important, especially because we still don't know how Pontius fits into the revamped attack - midfielder? forward? both?
All of that is well established, though. What we can't yet know is whether Partyboy and Nicky D will rebound from their subpar 2013 seasons. More broadly, what is D.C. United's ceiling if they don't? To my eye, the early returns on DeLeon are overwhelmingly positive - he's in the best shape of his professional career and looks and sounds hungry; he's less deferential and more willing to take people on this year, a return to the mentality that proved so successful two years ago.
Without the benefit of preseason playing time, Pontius is harder to figure out. Offseason reports were encouraging, pointing out that this hamstring surgery is of the same kind that cured the recurring issues he had with his other hammy a couple years ago. Then came the "2-week setback" that has kept him off the field. If we see him in the XI, or even the 18, for these last two preseason games, whether he plays well or not, I'll start to feel a little less worried for CP13's year. Otherwise, it'll remain a very open questions heading into the opener.
With United competing on three fronts - an improving league, defending the Open Cup title and entering Champions League play in the fall - every player is going to be important, especially those on the first two lines of the depth chart at each position. Whatever position they play - midfield, forward, inside, outside - Pontius and DeLeon will be on those first two lines. The pundits who say that their return to the form we saw in 2012 is vital to United's chances for a successful season, aren't wrong.
That's my take. Share your thoughts in the comments.