D.C. United’s announcement Friday that leading scorer Chris Pontius had signed a long-term contract extension came 24 hours after captain Dwayne De Rosario’s season was declared over because of a knee injury.
From a cynical viewpoint, the timing of the Pontius news could be seen as an attempt to deflect attention from the negativity surrounding De Rosario’s absence. But even before the new deal was revealed, focus had already pivoted to the fourth-year attacker, who will inherit greater responsibility in De Rosario’s absence.
Last year, the roles were reversed: When Pontius broke a leg in early September, De Rosario became the guiding force in United’s unsuccessful playoff pursuit.
Players and coaches reject the idea of one or two players bearing a considerably larger role, but as the second-most important player on the roster and the club’s longest-serving veteran, Pontius will, by default, become the focal point.
“There’s always been pressure on me, even when I didn’t have a big contract, even when DeRo was playing,” he said after Friday’s training session.
Pontius and United (12-10-5) begin the final stage of MLS’s regular season Saturday night against the New England Revolution (7-14-7) at RFK Stadium. D.C. is just a point out of playoff berth with seven matches remaining but will need to overcome the loss of De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP, to earn its first postseason slot in five years.
Pontius, 25, was under contract through 2013, but United wanted to secure him for the long run. People close to the talks said the deal – which goes in effect in January — is guaranteed for three years before entering two option seasons. The salary structure wasn’t revealed; his base salary this year was $155,000.
By securing a long-term pact, United is in position to receive a multimillion-dollar transfer fee should Pontius attract interest from European clubs in coming years. (Clubs do not collect when players leave at the end of their contract.)
Asked about moving abroad, he said: “Of course, everyone thinks about it. You have to look at a bunch of different circumstances.”
Namely, Pontius is not a U.S. national team player, and until he receives regular call-ups, his portfolio probably won’t be strong enough to leverage a move.
“I’m sure deep down he wants to play on the national team and move on eventually to Europe. A majority of guys do,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s in a good situation now. I don’t necessarily think he is completely ready to put all of his focus on a European move. He needs to get another year or two of good, solid, all-star type performances with this club and then evaluate things.”
For now, United will lean on Pontius and others to stabilize a listing club. United is mired in a 2-5-2 rut and has scored two or more goals in just two of the past nine matches. Pontius hasn’t scored in six weeks.
Since his arrival in June 2011, De Rosario has played a role in 55 percent of United’s 71 goals – 20 goals and 19 assists.
In addition to Pontius, Maicon Santos is a prime candidate to pick up the scoring load. Santos (seven goals) recently returned from a six-week injury layoff.
Although Santos is not 100 percent fit, “he is ready to go,” Olsen said. “There is a little bit of a spark to him right now.”
Santos, a Brazilian, might partner with Lionard Pajoy, a Colombian forward acquired last month. Although they’ve played together for just nine minutes two weeks ago, “South Americans are always on the same page,” Santos said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter. We are the same. We just need to look at each other.”
United notes: Daniel Woolard, the starting left back who was sidelined by a concussion six weeks ago, remains on a long-term timetable. Asked how he is feeling, he said: “Not great.” . . .
On Saturday, United will honor Olsen as the ninth inductee (seventh ex-player) into the Hall of Tradition. The club will also remember 2008 honoree Betty D’Anjolell, a former executive who died this week.