For Pete's Sake

The frustration of Chris Pontius

Photo: 215pix

It has been nearly a full calendar year since Chris Pontius’s last goal.

The goal, which leveled an important late-season away match with the Red Bulls, showcased Pontius’s aerial ability and his knack for getting to the right place at the right time.

And yet Pontius and the Union have had precious little to celebrate in the subsequent year. They surrendered a late goal to lose that match to the Red Bulls, part of a steep end-of-season slide that saw the Union fall right to the edge of the playoff picture before a one-and-done playoff appearance versus Toronto. They started 2017 on the same note, failing to win their first eight matches. With just five games to play, the club is on another long winless stretch and sit a full nine points behind the Red Bulls, who occupy the sixth seed and have a game in hand.

Through it all, Pontius hasn’t found the back of the net. That’s a big problem for a player who led the Union in goals last season, and who plays one of the most important attacking positions on the field.

It’s not for lack of trying, either. Aside from an inexplicable stretch away with the national team, Pontius has been an automatic starter for Jim Curtin this year — 24 starts and 26 appearances in 29 possible MLS matches, for a total of 1,973 minutes.

Let’s, then, get into two related questions. Why does Jim Curtin keep playing Pontius? And what does Pontius’s lost season say about the Union?

The “little things,” managerial stubbornness, or a lack of options?

There are, I think, three separate yet equally contributory explanations for why Pontius has kept his place in the team.

The first is the non-scoring things Pontius brings to the team. Curtin believes in setting up his team for defense first, and asks his wingers to track back on defense relentlessly. He also prefers players up top who can win an aerial ball. Pontius fills both those categories. A recent analysis by PSP’s Chris Sherman showed that Pontius has the highest +/- on the Union, with the team scoring eight more goals than they’ve allowed when he’s on the pitch (as of Aug. 27, 2017). WhoScored.com, meanwhile, counts Pontius as winning nearly 4 aerial duels per game, good for second best in MLS. Curtin likely sees these statistics and concludes that Pontius is contributing to the overall flow of the team.

The second explanation is simple stubbornness, one of the hallmarks of Curtin’s managerial tenure alongside sharp suits and the phrase “a tale of two halves.” Curtin believes in certain players, and he gives those players — typically veterans — nearly infinite chances to play well.

Pontius is a veteran who proved his mettle to Curtin last season with an exceptional goal-scoring record. Sources around the team also credit Pontius with infusing the locker room with much-needed leadership in 2016. Given those factors, the manager seems willing to give Pontius as much time as possible to work himself out of a funk. This is how he treated Andrew Wenger in 2015 — another player given more than half a season to remember how to play soccer — as well as Conor Casey and C.J. Sapong for stretches in which neither striker was scoring goals.

Admittedly, it’s not as though the Union have other wingers who are blowing the doors off. And that’s the third factor: depth. Fafa Picault has probably been the team’s best wide attacker, although he can be maddeningly inconsistent from minute-to-minute and lacks elite finishing skills. Ilsinho has struggled on the wing and has been grafted in to the No. 10 position. Injuries have destroyed Fabian Herbers. Marcus Epps isn’t an MLS player, though he may grow into one someday (color me skeptical, though). And Eric Ayuk is in Sweden.

Of course, there’s one option we haven’t seen much of, and that’s playing captain Alejandro Bedoya on the wing. Deployed wide in the past with both Nantes and the national team, Bedoya could slide to the right and open up a spot in midfield for Warren Creavalle (why?) or Derrick Jones (out of favor at the moment, for whatever reason). The manager, however, seems unwilling to send Bedoya out of the center of the pitch.

A frustrating player for a frustrating season

No matter which of the three reasons I’ve outlined predominates in the manager’s mind — as I mentioned, I think it’s a mix of all three — a player in a rich vein of poor form is playing every single match for the Union.

It seems even the players are aware of how much Pontius needs a goal. In the Minnesota game, C.J. Sapong seemed to pull back on a tap in because he wanted Pontius to notch his first goal of the year.

Members of the Union all respect Pontius as a person and as a leader, but with the team mired in a six-game winless stretch capping a lost season, one wonders whether it’s time to switch things up on the wing.

No matter how you slice it, it’s been a frustrating 12 months for the Union.

No player is more emblematic of that than Chris Pontius.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you.
    .
    I can’t resist and am going to comment on this then climb back under my rock.
    .
    Everything about this team is problematic at the moment… from Jay Heaps a NE legend in soccer getting canned for under production to Chris Pontius to player personnel changes to get guys like an Adam Najem or Derrick Jones regular minutes… like putting Alejandro in arguably his best position.
    .
    ….all the way down to the head scratching and quite concerning fact that not one U17 Philadelphia Union academy player was called in to John Hackworth’s trial for U17 World Cup.
    .
    Shall I go on?
    .
    Alarms at every level. Just the truth.

    • They have clearly said through action that Derrick Jones is not MLS-ready at the #8/#6. aka double pivot, right now. He has to get the “more” as in “we want more” by playing where he might learn it. That’s Bethlehem for games. He continues to practice for the Union every day.
      .
      Do recall that the way the game is played at the start of the season is very different from the way it is played at the end, in any league at any level.
      .
      Glad you came out from under your rock. Always good to hear you voice.

  2. While I have a soft spot for Pontius – met him at a Union thing and he was a truly nice guy – I think his struggles are exhibit A in the case against Curtin. Pontius has 6 assists, which is nice, but we really needed 6 goals at from that position.

    Curtin’s greatest liability is his rigidity. He’s done with Pontius the very same thing he did with Wenger two years ago. Waiting for a player to play through a slump might be defensible in Major League Baseball, where you have 162 games. It doesn’t cut it in a soccer season where 5 games can buy and you’ve lost a serious chunk of your games in hand. Sitting Chris for a game or two might have done the man a big favor as well. It’s actually exasperating to even write this paragraph.

    The rigidity… I look at the best coaches like Pep Guardiola, who, yes, has an embarrassment of riches at City, but he finds himself with two good strikers and switches shape to a 4-4-2 (from a 4-2-3-1) to accommodate the players he has. The best coaches find shapes to fit their squads.

  3. Pontius has a +/- of +8, that is why he is playing. The team is statistically better with him on the pitch.
    .
    “But Pontius plays on the wing and that means he needs to be scoring goals”
    Joey Votto doesn’t typically hit a large number of home runs for 1B (though he does have 35 this year), but the Reds lineup is better with him in it because he does other things for the offense (high batting avg and on base %). Pontius at either left or right wing is the same for the Union. He may not be producing in the way you may expect from someone in that position on paper, but the team is better offensively and defensively with him in the lineup.
    .
    Those who were asking for / expecting “moneyball” this is it

    • Agreed. As frustrating as Curtin can be with his inflexibility, the stats and “moneyball” analytics support Pontius being on the field. Think he’s been serviceable for the Union, but I hope he’s sent packing at the end of the season and a complete roster haul occurs this offseason.

  4. To elaborate on depth and its development, letting the kids down on the Steel remain in a competitive environment appropriate to their state of growth back in February is a value worth preserving. E. g., Epps is with the first team because Herbers is hurt, and because he did well enough initially to warrant his use.
    .
    We will know enough the day after MLS cup to begin to see the possibilities for 2018 from within the squad, the organization and the league. An overseas component will have to wait some weeks longer.

  5. Chris Pontius has spent almost his whole professional career on the left side. He played left side on DC where he had 10g for one of the seasons. He played left side for the Union when he scored 12g last year. The fact that he isn’t as effective on the right where he has played all year this year (exception being the last game) should come as no surprise.
    .
    It comes down to a decision by Curtin (i.e. his version of coaching) – he decided that it was better for the team with Fafa on the left. Personally, I think Fafa would have still been doing Fafa stuff if he had been playing on the right, and we would not have disrupted Pontius’ rhythm from last year.
    .
    But as we all know, Curtin absolutely killed all momentum for certain players from last year – Pontius is no different.

  6. I think a lot of the team’s struggles are directly tied to the lack of a quality #10. I’m not trying to scapegoat the poor season Pontius has had, but it often seems like he has to beat a defender off the dribble in order to get a shot on goal. If you had someone who could actually unlock defenses in the final third, I’d think you see more goals from Pontius due to his ability to get in good positions.
    .
    That being said I think it’s highly unlikely that Pontius is back next year, especially at his current salary.

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