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Friday, July 28, 2017

Pontius stays in the moment to relish Gold Cup triumph

Chris Pontius, center standing to left of trophy, was elated over the U.S.'s win
in the Gold Cup final Wednesday, a special moment in his career
no matter what comes next for him in the national team picture.  (AP)
CHESTER >> To many in the media, the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup is often portrayed as a means to an end – toward individual placement on the squad for the next World Cup, for national entrée to the FIFA Confederations Cup.

But for players, the scope is necessarily more granular, about one practice or game at a time. And when there’s reason to celebrate, it’s about savoring the moment.

That’s how the Union’s Chris Pontius relished in the U.S.’s victory in the tournament, sealed by a dramatic 2-1 finale Wednesday night over Jamaica at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

“It’s pretty special,” Pontius said Friday at Union training, his first full day back with the club. “With the national team, a lot of the guys were talking, even the guys that have been around the national team a long time, there’s not many times you get a chance to win trophies. So you enjoy it. That’s my second (trophy) now, with the 2013 Open Cup (with D.C. United), and I’ve lost in the finals of the Open Cup and been close to getting into the finals in other things.

“It’s special to raise silverware in something and when you’re done, I think that’s what you look back on, those moments, in the locker room after and enjoying it with the guys.”

Pontius appeared in three of the U.S.’s six games, added as an injury replacement for Kenny Saief. He started one group stage game and was a late sub in the quarterfinal win over El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Fried. He played no part in the 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the semifinal and the triumph over Jamaica, sealed by a Jordan Morris bolt into the top corner in the 88th minute.

Pontius is up to five career caps, all earned in 2017.

For many fringe players, particularly those based in MLS, the Gold Cup was a chance to impress Bruce Arena in the absence of many mainstays ramping up in the European preseason.
Pontius doesn’t think he made the most convincing case for a plane ticket to Russia next summer and understands that he remains a longshot for that 23-man squad. But at best, half of the players involved in the Gold Cup are in the same boat. To have entered the tournament with the sole objective of impressing Arena would’ve missed an important part of the journey.

Plus, Pontius knows he rose on Arena’s radar because of his performances with the Union, a stage on which he has more opportunities to shine.

“I don’t think I helped my stock a whole lot,” Pontius said. “I played OK in the games. I knew my time would be limited going in. … But I’ve always said, handle your business with your club team. My focus is coming back here. I’ve got to put up a lot of numbers here and hopefully we get some wins down the road and get into the playoffs. That’s in my control now and that’s what I can control.”

“To have Chris back, he’s confident,” manager Jim Curtin said. “He gives us a little bit of fresh legs so something we’re excited by.”

Pontius’ finals experience was unusual in witnessing his club teammate, Andre Blake, exit in the first half with a gruesome hand laceration. An unintentional cleating by American midfielder Kellyn Acosta required seven stitches between Blake’s right index and middle fingers that will keep him out of action at least for Saturday’s Union trip to New England.

Blake, who captained Jamaica, was named goalkeeper of the tournament and was regarded by many as the Gold Cup’s most outstanding player. Pontius’ initial reaction to seeing his adversary for the night helped off the field was deep concern.

“In my head, I flashed into the club mindset if anything and said, ‘oh crap,’” Pontius said. “… I was just worried about him in that moment.”

For Pontius, the elation of the final moments was what the tournament was all about. The native of Yorba Linda and UC-Santa Barbara grad had a number of family members join him in Northern California for the celebration. It’s one he won’t soon forget, no matter what may come next in a U.S. jersey.

“You’ve got to understand that there’s a million people that would kill to be in your position in that time,” he said. “You enjoy it and you don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.”

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