By AVI CREDITOR
What happens when a player doesn't just meet expectations, but surpasses them?
Welcome to Chris Pontius' world.
After notching eight goals and six assists in 40 games (in all competitions) during his rookie season with D.C. United, Pontius announced his arrival in Major League Soccer with profound authority, earning a spot as a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year.
His first-year success caught the attention of U.S. national team head coach Bob Bradley, who called him up for January's national team training camp. As Pontius' second MLS season begins, he will face the tough task of improving on the high standard he set as a rookie.
"Last year I came in here and had to prove myself going into the preseason," Pontius said. "I didn't really know what to expect. Obviously, I think I kind of exceeded expectations, but I wanted to get playing time and do all that, so when I stepped on the field in my first game I knew I had to push myself."
It took all of 62 minutes of game time for the 6-foot, 168-pound, 22-year-old to validate the front office's decision.
With a bending strike that pierced the back of the L.A. Galaxy net in the season opener, Pontius put his true abilities on display. He contributed in the midfield and at striker as the season progressed, and his versatility and finishing ability are what makes him one of United's top threats in just his second season.
"The experience I gained in my rookie year was huge," Pontius said. "Confidence and experience are the two biggest things that helped me be comfortable out there on the field."
Pontius' first season garnered him the national-team experience and at least a mention in the conversation about which forwards belong on the World Cup roster this summer. Even he won't buy into that level of expectation, though.
"You have to be realistic," Pontius said. "(January) was my first call up. I'm just going to keep working hard and do what I can and control what I can on the field.
"Obviously, I would love to get called back up to the national team and perform there, but you have to be realistic with the World Cup kind-of-thing. I've been realistic with myself. I'm with D.C. now and want to perform with D.C. now, and if something happens, it happens."
As for the man in charge of managing expectations, first-year United coach Curt Onalfo would rather let things play out instead of proclaiming a list of requirements for Pontius' second year.
"I don't want to put tremendous expectations on his shoulders," Onalfo said. "I think he's a young player with a very bright future, and I'm going to make sure that he feels comfortable and confident to go in and have a great season. I believe that he can have a great season, and I'm sure he will."