For a player accustomed to making the difficultplay look simple, the last month has been anything but easy for ChrisPontius. Struggling to shake therust from a six-month absence due to a broken leg, the California product losthis spot in Ben Olsen's starting eleven. But late Saturday afternoon, after scoring the game-winning goal in theBlack-and-Red's 2-1 victory over New England, Pontius laid serious claim to moreplaying time.
"He certainly made my life more difficulttoday," Olsen acknowledged after Pontius' 82nd-minute tally gave Unitedthree road points. "That'swhat I'm asking him to do. Whenguys come in, [I want them to] go make me have sleepless nights about who is going to be outthere."
"It has been tough for me coming off thebench," Pontius admitted from a jubliant United locker room. "Ideally I want to start, every player wants to start everygame. But you've got to realizewhere you are at with your body. Iwas rusty the first couple games and I was still finding my touch and gettingfitness. Being a sub has forced meto work harder to get back in and that goal is just the result of the hardwork."
With Danny Cruz and Nick DeLeon turning inimpressive efforts out on the wings, Olsen had to think outside the box inorder to get Pontius into Saturday's match. Though the idea of using the 24-year-old as a forward hadbeen discussed earlier in the week, it was still a surprise when Pontiusreplaced Maicon Santos in the 79th minute. Santos' 19th-minute tally was his team-high third goal ofthe season, but after eighty minutes of battling New England's physical backsthe Brazilian was all but worn out. Instead of using a defensive substitution in hopes of settling for aroad draw, Olsen took a calculated risk and pushed Pontius up top.
"I just thought we weren't thatmobile," Olsen said of his team's attack in the second half. "[Josh] Wolff is such a savvyplayer and he was coming underneath and doing a good job in possession and Ijust thought we needed someone who could run, someone with some realpace. As they got tired and theirbacks got leggy, Chris took advantage of it."
"You saw the first couple touches that hewas getting into headers with their defense and making runs and that attitudegets you far," added captain Dwayne De Rosario. "Thankfully he got one-on-one outside. I just yelled at him to take [thedefender] on and he did with confidence. Then he did what he does best. Two touches and a knockoutpunch."
The KO came courtesy of a move that has becomePontius' signature since the very beginning of his MLS career. With the ball on the left side of NewEngland's penalty area, Pontius expertly cut around defender StephenMcCarthy. From there he curled anall-too-familiar shot around a helpless Matt Reis.
"In practice we've been working on it thepast week," Pontius said of his move to forward. "I'm comfortable upthere, I like it up there. Myfirst instinct is to always go forward and score goals and that is your job asa forward, so it suits me well."
Pontius admitted he’d have little time tocelebrate his first goal of the season as United turns its attention to apivotal pair of matches over the coming week. On Wednesday night, the Black-and-Red face Montreal justdays ahead of next Sunday's showdown with the rival New York Red Bulls.
"Now I've got to keep it going," Pontiusacknowledged. "It's one gameand now this week is huge for us."