In the first half Saturday, with a defender in his path and the net as distant as the last time he scored a goal for D.C. United, Chris Pontius accelerated past a Toronto player with the grace he had exhibited as a rookie two years ago.
In the second half, when a defender threatened to interrupt his surge into the penalty area, Pontius deadened his run and cut sharply to facilitate a clear look at the target.
Each sequence resulted in a goal, the first and last strikes during United’s 3-0 away victory.
Had he attempted either of those moves in 2010, when a hamstring injury cursed his season, Pontius might have surrendered the ball or failed to shed his man. Although the midfielder-forward started almost half of the regular season, the ailment shackled his improvising instincts.
“I wouldn’t have been able to reach a couple of those gears that I did in Toronto,” Pontius said, reflecting on last year and last weekend. “Accelerating, cutting, it wasn’t going to happen.”
Most hamstring injuries heal on their own over weeks or months. Pontius’s chronic problem required surgery. Three tendons in the hamstring were tearing from the pelvic bone.
His problems began while playing at UC Santa Barbara, then flared in January 2010 while at the U.S. national team’s training camp. He recovered in time to start in United’s first four matches last year, but late in the first half against the Chicago Fire, he removed himself.
Pontius returned a month later but was not the same. A two-goal performance at Seattle in June was the high mark in a low summer.
“He could play, but he couldn’t play to his maximum potential, and that’s frustrating both for him and for us because we didn’t necessarily know what it was,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “He goes in [for surgery] and finds out that some real stuff is going on in there.”
In September, with his year in ruin and United enduring the worst season in club history, Pontius underwent repairs. Others in MLS had returned from similar procedures, but the rehabilitation timetable was four to six months.
The surgery was performed in Los Angeles, allowing Pontius to recover at his parents’ home in Orange County. He was bed-ridden for almost two weeks – his mom baked him sweets and picked up In-N-Out burgers – and began jogging about a month later. Over the winter, he shuttled between California and Washington for rehab stints.
“For me, it was peace of mind that I got it done and wouldn’t have to deal with it again. I had been dealing with it for so long,” he said. “At the very least, it was just going to take away the pain and let me play again.”
It did more than that.
“I didn’t expect to come back feeling better than ever – stronger, faster,” added Pontius, who performed well enough in preseason to regain his starting job.
Against Toronto, he rekindled memories of his debut season in 2009, when he scored in the opener, finished with four goals and three assists in 28 appearances (23 starts), and was an MLS rookie of the year finalist.
In the fifth minute Saturday, he collected a stray ball and dashed past Jacob Peterson before firing into the far corner from 16 yards. Early in the second half, he made an assertive run to gather Josh Wolff’s flick and was taken down by Ty Harden, who was red-carded.
And in the 73rd minute, when Fred set him up in stride on the left, Pontius discarded Dan Gargan with an abrupt move to the inside and curled a 15-yarder to the far side of the net.
Aside from the goals, Pontius combined with Fred on the flanks to diversify the attack and relieve pressure on Wolff and leading scorer Charlie Davies.
“You could see Toronto [act] like, ‘Oh God, there’s another guy we weren’t accounting for,’ ” said Davies, who scored the second goal. “He was very active and opened a lot of space.
“It’s great to have him starting to come along. We’re starting to see the potential of a player who could be a force.”
From California, family and friends texted and called Pontius with congratulatory messages.
“They were excited and they want to see more of it,” he said. “I want to see more of it. D.C. fans want to see more of it. I want to put up some numbers this year, and it was a good way to get it started.”