Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United rookies adjust quickly to professional level

Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace have taken advantage of injuries to veteran players to get an early taste of professional soccer. Their performances in the first two matches with DC United bode well for their future and the team’s-if they can stay away from the sugar.

“I ate so much candy and I still do. It’s horrible that they have a little candy box in there and I’m just pickin’ at it all day,” said Pontius. “I used to eat ice cream in college but thank god I haven’t bought any ice cream since I have been here.”

“Oh man he’s got a sweet tooth,” verifies Wallace about his roommate. “He has drawers full of candy. Every second you see him eating something.”

Pontius scored 14 goals as a senior at UC-Santa Barbara last year but realized quickly some of those guilty habits would have to change if he was going to be a successful professional.

“You have got take care of your body because every little bit counts here…getting the treatment that you need. In college you are forced to go day-in and day-out because it’s such a short season. Here it’s a long season and you need to do whatever to prepare your body for the next week and for the next month ahead,” said Pontius. You have got to eat right. I didn’t do that in college-you eat whatever you want in college.”

Pontius played up front next to Luciano Emilio in their first match at Los Angeles and scored a fantastic goal giving United a 2-0 lead which they ended up losing in the final minutes. He shifted to the flank in a 1-1 draw in their home opener last weekend.

Wallace has played the full 90-minutes on the flank in the absences of wingers Fred and Santino Quaranta, who are both out with hamstring injuries.

“It’s definitely different but both have adjusted real well and now you are starting to see consistency and we don’t just judge by games but how they train every week,” said United coach Tom Soehn.

“There is no guessing their role really. They did it in training; they did it when we drafted them.”
Soehn is including Brandon Barklage, who came on late against Chicago for his first professional minutes.

“We saw a lot of positives in what they bring and they had six weeks to understand along with our guys to understand how we like to do it. It’s not a trial and error, when you see it week-in and week-out, you feel comfortable putting them into those environments,” added the United boss.

Along with Quaranta and Fred, Jaime Moreno is still not to full fitness after multiple off-season surgeries, playing the first 65-minutes against Chicago. With Ben Olsen’s unpredictable day-to-day status, the younger players are going to make an early and significant contribution all over the field.

“It’s only out of necessity that we’ve moved him around a little bit but I think his best spot is up top. It depends on the person and the position,” said Soehn about Pontius. “He is doing a good job right now. He gives you what you what you always look for; that 1-2 punch; who fits well with who, how they combine with others. It’s competitive up there which I think is a good thing for us.”

For the first time, United looks to have legitimate depth to challenge veterans and compete at several positions.

“The one thing I have learned is to keep it simple and play yourself into the game; build your confidence, connect your first pass and then as opportunities come, you start taking people on but you still have to do the things that got you here,” said Pontius.

“I am not here because I played simple in college,” he added however. “I took people on, I took risks and I will eventually do that here and I know I will and I’ve even showed a little bit of it this year.”

“As a player you have to be free,” added Wallace, who played at the University of Maryland. “You have to go with your gut instinct but you also have to make sure that at the same time you are connected with the team, you can’t be out there doing your own thing.

“So I feel I have a good balance of doing what I do best but also doing things that are going to bring the team together defensively or offensively.”

Barklage has not had the same opportunities as the other two but remains confident he will get his chance, “I’m pretty happy with the way I have been playing so far. I’m not really expecting too much playing time.”

“Don’t change the way you are playing right now, you are playing great,” he added about the message he has received from the coaching staff. “They like the energy I bring to the table. The offensive side of things have been pretty comfortable and I need to work on a few things tactically, defensively is what I think they are looking for.”

He too was surprised at the difficulty of transitioning to professional soccer. “It takes hard work on and off the field,” frankly said Barklage shaking his head. “The appetite and diet on top of coming and performing every day, working hard and learning from the older guys especially like Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno, they come in and work their butts off every day and I try take advice from them to learn from them and be a better player.”

The first surprising adjustment for all three of them was the length and intensity of the pre-season. College pre-season’s starts in August with games usually starting a month later running through November. Or December if you happen to advance and win the College Cup like Wallace and his Maryland Terrapins, who won the title last fall.

“You always knew what pre-season was for and even in college it was a pain in the butt,” said Pontius. “This one is a little bit longer and you get burned out at times but getting in that first game, everything was worth it. I’m definitely excited to be in games now because that is what professionals live for. It’s a necessity and something that had to be done.”

The drain and effect of the pre-season were obvious to the Soehn and the coaching staff. “We did see through the spring training, especially for Chris, there were times where he was like, ‘this is a lot harder than I ever expected’ and I think it was the Puerto Rico trip where he really felt that and he worked his way out of that.

California native Pontius has yet to adjust to the weather in Washington, training with a knit cap and long sleeves last Tuesday on a dreamy 55-degree, no wind or humidity day in the nation’s capital.

“I didn’t have the clothes for this weather out here,” said the surprised California native.