CHESTER, Pa. — Chris Pontius wasn’t even supposed to be on the U.S. national team’s Gold Cup roster.
But after getting called in at the last minute as an injury replacement, the Union winger has emerged as an important member of the team — now with a unique opportunity to wear his country’s colors in front of his hometown fans.
After playing the full 90 minutes in the Americans’ 3-0 defeat of Nicaragua on Saturday — a result that clinched Group B — Pontius was kept on the roster after head coach Bruce Arena switched six players ahead of Wednesday’s quarterfinal game vs. El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Field (9 p.m., FS1).
What does Arena’s confidence mean to Pontius?
“It’s huge for a player,” Pontius said from Penn’s Rhodes Field, where the USMNT has been training this week. “If you have a coach that instills confidence in you, it allows you to go play your game a little bit more freely. He’s always talking to us about our roles and what he wants from us. It’s different game to game, so that’s translated through him, and we knew what we needed to do, especially going into that last game. And we got it done.”
The 30-year-old Pontius got a few national team sniffs early in his career but had been mostly out of the picture until Arena was hired to succeed Jurgen Klinsmann in November. Soon after, he made his official debut in a friendly vs. Serbia in January and has since seen the field in the last two Gold Cup games.
“I’ll just say it this way: Bruce knows exactly what he’s gonna get from Chris,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “And Bruce has a tendency to like guys he can rely on.”
Curtin added that Union captain Alejandro Bedoya is equally reliable, which is why Arena leaned on Bedoya’s leadership to help the USMNT win Group B with a mostly young, untested roster. Bedoya was then one of the six players to be cut loose from the squad but only because he wanted to be with his wife, who gave birth to their second child Tuesday morning.
For Curtin, seeing two Union players start for the U.S. national team in a tournament game was an important step for the franchise. He’s also happy to see the Gold Cup stop in Philly for a pair of quarterfinal games — Panama faces Costa Rica before the U.S. and El Salvador tangle — a year after the Linc played host to a Copa America Centenario game between the U.S. and Paraguay.
Well, maybe not entirely happy.
“It makes me angry I’m out of town,” said Curtin, whose Union team will be in Montreal to face the Impact (7:30 p.m., TCN) during Wednesday’s Gold Cup doubleheader at the Linc. “Any time the national team can come to Philadelphia, you want to be able to attend those training sessions, to be at the games, to get a feel — because Philadelphia is a great soccer town. It’s got a rich history in soccer. The Philadelphia Union is still a newer club and trying to grow and become stronger. But when the national team is here, it’s special.
“Hopefully our fans in Philly can make this as hostile of an environment as possible for El Salvador.”
Considering the new additions to the retooled U.S. national team include four of the most accomplished players in USMNT history in Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, it may be tough for Pontius to see the field Wednesday.
But should the opportunity come to play in front of Philly fans, he’ll seize it.
“That would be great,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Either way, just being at USMNT camp for the second time this year after such a long hiatus is an “honor” he knows “every American strives for.” And he hopes the experience will translate to more success with the Union after an up-and-down first half of the season in which he logged a healthy six assists but failed to score a goal.
“Sure, I’ve had multiple games where I could’ve easily scored and I needed to do better with my chances,” said Pontius, who was shifted from the left wing to the right earlier in the season. “I know that. I’m well aware of it. Hopefully just playing at this level translates to success on the field with Philly for me.”