Interview / Union

PSP talks to Union winger Chris Pontius

Photo: Earl Gardner

PSP got a chance to talk with Union winger Chris Pontius, who has been one of the club’s best players this season. The conversation took place before the Union’s 3-0 win over DC United. We asked Chris about facing his old club. His response: “I just want to win.”

Philly Soccer Page: Is there anything that stands out to you in terms of what you’ve been asked to do this season compared to what you did in DC? Anything specific on-field or off?

Chris Pontius: Definitely assuming more of a leadership role. There’s a great group of guys that we have in here. I guess you could say we have somewhat of a younger team. Guys are relatively new to the league, and Jim has just asked me to bring some veteran leadership. And that’s both talking with guys, but more so leading on the field. I’m not much of a guy to get into people or yell at people. I’d rather lead by the way I play and the way I go about my business every day. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve gone through.

Sure. Leave the yelling to Brian Carroll. So how have you handled that role? When you think about how you want to act as a leader, what kinds of things matter? Do you think about moments when you need to speak up?

Certainly, there are moments. But I also want to feel approachable. I want guys to feel like I’m one of the guys, because I am. We’re all out on the same mission, on the same field, working toward the same goal. For me, I don’t want anyone to feel that I’m putting myself above them, or that any of the veterans are. We’re simply there trying to achieve the same goal and go about it the same way.

As one of those older guys that’s been around the block, I certainly want to feel approachable for the younger guys. So they feel they can come to me with anything, on-field, off the field, I’m there to share my experiences with them.

Was there a guy who did that for you when you came into the league?

Yeah, I came into an extremely veteran group of guys in DC. My former coach Ben Olsen was still playing at the time. Jaime Moreno, Bryan Namoff, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio, Clyde Simms. Fred, who used to play for the Union, was there. Santino Quaranta. So I had a veteran group with me.

The guy that really helped me out and kind of took me under his wing — and Rodney Wallace was the other rookie with me — was Clyde Simms, who helped us transition to being pro. It’s quite a transition from the college season to the pro season. So there are going to be bumps and bruises for sure. It’s a roller coaster ride. Keeping your emotions in check is huge. Don’t let the highs get too high and the lows too low.

I’ve been in some of the Union locker rooms in past seasons and there was a sense that people got down after a while, after losses. Especially after something like the loss at Houston [on a last second free kick] where you feel like you were so close to a road point and it slipped away. But the sense I get this season is that it’s different this year. You guys have found away to keep an even keel in the locker room. 

Certainly. I can tell you that they way practice has been approached after a loss and after a win has been the same way. That’s from the players, that’s from the coaches, that’s from the staff. There hasn’t been a difference of panic, a ‘we’ve made it’ kind of thing after a win. Always a ‘get back to work’ mentality. There are still things to get better at. You take the good from the game, and you take the bad from the game. You try to improve on the good and build on that success, and you try to learn from the bad things you’ve done. And that’s been the approach of the team this year. There hasn’t been that emotional roller coaster as much.

But listen, it hurts to lose. I hate losing. But at the same time, it’s ‘back to work against DC.’ Some games aren’t going to go your way. We certainly won some games in the last moment this year, some games that if you looked at the overall game, you could say that a tie would’ve been a fair result and we pulled out a win. Against Houston, I think you could say that a tie would’ve been a fair result for both teams. It is the way it is. Sports can be cruel at times, and it can be very rewarding at times.

And like I said, it is that emotional roller coaster. People hate losing, but it’s big picture here. We’re right where we need to be going into the second half of the season. You go on a little run, just look at what NYCFC has done the past couple weeks. Go on a little run and jump up the table pretty quickly. It’s the beauty of this league. We’re looking to get on one of those runs of our own.

On that point about pulling the good and the bad out of games and learning form both: From an outsider’s point of view, it looks like you do a lot of your work off the ball this year. And not just on the defensive end, but also in attack there are long moments where you’re not receiving the ball but you still have to stay aware and figure out where you need to be and what you want to do. Is that something you’ve had to adjust to at all? And how do you handle being off the ball that much?

I think that’s the life of a winger. You’re not in the center of the field.

You’re going to get into a dangerous spot 3-4 times a game, maybe more, maybe less. And how many times can you make it count? How many times can you make the other team pay?

Certainly, there are games where I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m not getting touches on the ball’ and start moving toward the center of the field just to get a touch here or there. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more patient with the game and knowing that it’ll come to me at some point, whether it’s getting on the end of a cross or just biding my time then making a run to start an attack.

You learn patience as a winger, at times. Every game is going to be different, depending on who you play against, depending on their formation, depending on how your team is playing, all of these things you have to take into account. Maybe it’s late in the game and you need to hold the ball, or it’s late in the game and you’re trying to get in behind. All of those things are guidelines for your movement and you take them into account and try to make the best situations for the guys around you.

I feel like your career might straddle this line in how attackers are deployed. When you came into the league, the way you just described a winger is how I would’ve described a striker. You’re up top, not going to get many touches, you really need to take advantage of those you get. Now, there are times when the striker is going to be dropping in and getting more involved and it’s you guys on the wings who take on the ‘thinking like a striker’ responsibility. 

It’s different for every team. Different for every formation. In the formation that we play, I’d say that us wingers probably get the least amount of touches on the ball. But when we get those touches, how many times can you make them in dangerous spots? How many times can you complete a pass in the attacking third, make a pass that feeds a forward and trying to get on the end of a one-two. Feeding a midfielder and run in behind. Maybe you don’t get the ball and it goes the other way, but then you’re in position for a cross.

You’re probably not going to get the most touches in a game, but that’s where you have to be patient.

Like a zen winger state. Jim has talked a couple times about you drifting a bit inside or a bit outside as the season has gone on, and how you’ve been able to come to him and say you think you’re drifting too far this way or that and want to adjust. What do you notice on the field that leads you to try and make those adjustments? 

It depends on the position of the other team, how fast we’re moving the ball side to side… it’s based off your surroundings. If your defender’s loose, you might be better off staying put. If he’s tight, then obviously you have to clear out space. And in doing so, there are a lot of times as an attacking player you’re going to make runs and maybe two out of five times you’re going to get the ball. The other three times, you’re simply clearing space for other people to move into position. And you have to be OK with that!

There are times you’re going to make a great run and you’re not going to get the ball and you’ll be frustrated, ‘Oh, I made a great run and I didn’t get the ball!’ Um, yeah. Whoever was on the ball decided that option B or option A was a better option than you. And you have to be OK with that.

You’ll see attacking players all over the world throw their hands up when they think they should’ve gotten the ball. It’s the life of an attacking player. It’s a lot of selfless running at times, but it needs to be done. You don’t want things to be stagnant on the field.

I wanted to ask you about that. In Houston, Collen Warner sat between the lines and didn’t let you guys get at the back four. When you’re on the field in a game like that, do you get a feeling that things aren’t moving quickly enough? How can you respond to that on the pitch? 

The 95 degree weather didn’t help in Houston either!

I think maybe we could’ve threatened over the top a few more times. And in doing that you open space underneath because they have to respect the ball over top. I think that’s what it came down to in that game for us.

There are times you want to play the beautiful soccer and look for combination play. But in order to do that, you have to stretch teams a bit so you have space. And in that game, there just wasn’t space.

6 Comments

  1. Great interview.
    .
    I love how Earnie and co. has put emphasis on bringing in high soccer-IQ players. From veterans like Pontius to younger guys like Rosenberry, having a team that is smart enough to figure things out on the field will pay dividends.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    He has rapidly turned from someone we hated in DC to someone we really like here!

  3. Lucky Striker says:

    His value remains consistent with his health. He’s correct in his assertion that he can remain invisible for much of a match, then suddenly appear in opportune moments to make a difference.

    Other than vs. LA-he’s described his year to date in a nutshell.

  4. A lot of people will talk about some of the other excellent squad additions we made this year, (and there have been lots) but for my money pontius has been the most important. In a system that forces CJ sapong to do a ton of dirty work up front, it’s not him that reaps the statistical reward. It’s the guys behind him that need to find their moment and finish. Pontius makes that work. He’s smart and patient, waits for his moment and takes it (see the pk he draws against DC, his late runs against columbus, etc). He embodies the attitude we want our young guys to have too.

  5. Sister Evy says:

    I really enjoy your reports on PSP. Your analysis and reviews of the games is top notch and adds another dimension to the understanding and appreciation of the team. I have been a fan since the very beginning in 2010 and I never lost faith in our Union but I must say this season has been a lot of fun so far. This interview was well written and very interesting. Pontus has been a great addition to the team and it’s also nice to see Andre Blake coming into his own. Keep up the good work

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