At some point in a talented American player's MLS career, he'll be faced with a choice: Re-sign and stay in MLS, or let his contract lapse, with the hope of a lucrative move abroad. Despite the growth of Major League Soccer, the pull of Europe remains intense and persistent. So when a talented player chooses to stay, it's not always obvious why.
D.C. United attacker Chris Pontius is the most recent player to face such a decision. With his contract set to expire next year after a successful (but injury-plagued) run, Pontius chose to re-sign with MLS rather than play out the remainder of his deal and take a chance at a jump across the Atlantic. That news undoubtedly thrilled United fans, but it does open the question as to why a player with so much promise and a possible European future might tie himself to MLS.
The example of Stuart Holden, a player whose growth in England is obvious despite several injury setbacks, looms large for any player in Pontius' position. Holden consciously passed on signing an extension with Houston, then turned down a contract offer from MLS after the 2009 season because a move to England remained his dream.
After re-signing with United, it would be fair to wonder if Pontius, a 25-year-old winger, harbors those same ambitions.
"Signing this contract did not shoot that down at all," Pontius said. "For me, if a club wants me at the right time, then they can come get me, just as they came and got Geoff Cameron this year. That's how I look at it."
Pontius' faith that MLS will "do the right thing" if and when an interested club comes calling played a large role in keeping him in United colors for the foreseeable future. He's comfortable -- and that means something -- but the sale of Cameron to Stoke City gives him reason to believe he's not chained to MLS. He hopes to play in Europe someday, but with four professional seasons under his belt, he's willing to wait.
"It obviously has to be the right offer for everyone involved. We've seen some of those offers be turned down; I would hope in my case it wouldn't be if the opportunity came about," he said.
The improvement of United helped as well -- the D.C. club is back in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007 and has a crucial Eastern semifinal second leg Thursday night in New York.
"(Re-signing) is not something I just did overnight," Pontius said. "I thought about it for a couple weeks. D.C. has been very good to me. I like the coaching staff, I like where we're headed."
There is no question Pontius is good enough to play in Europe, just as Holden was before him. But unlike the Bolton midfielder, Pontius doesn't hold a European passport and would need a strong national team resume to be granted a work permit to play in a place like England. Holden's Scottish roots smoothed his path, an advantage Pontius doesn't have.
There's a strong sense that factor played a role in the decision to re-sign, again with Cameron serving as the visible example. It's no coincidence that Cameron's move came just as he was rising to prominence with the U.S. men's national team under Jurgen Klinsmann.
"Having no national team caps and realizing it would be a little bit tougher for me to get over to Europe than for someone with a bunch of national team caps, I decided this is the best decision for me," Pontius said.
The former UC Santa Barbara player recently turned down a call from Klinsmann to join the team for the past two World Cup qualifiers because of a sore knee. But the chance to shine for the U.S. -- and the improved European prospects that would come with it -- appears to be on the horizon.
The winger's European dream might have been put on hold thanks to a season-ending injury suffered in 2010, a major factor in his lack of national team time. But he says the injury played no part in his decision to sign a new contract.
"I've put the injury behind me. I think my play has said that this year," said Pontius, who has 12 goals and four assists in his breakout season. "(The injury) is not something I think about anymore when I got out there. It was an obstacle that I had to overcome."
It's easier for players in Pontius' position to justify re-signing with a league that is clearly on the rise. While D.C. United continues to work toward getting a new stadium, other teams are opening new buildings and have strong attendance. "You can see the teams that we've added lately into the league, the attendance numbers, everything," Pontius said when asked if the growth of MLS played a part in his decision. "I'd like to be part of that. I'd like to be able to play the first game in the new stadium here if anything does get done."
From the outside, it's easy to wonder why a player of Pontius' ability would pass up the opportunity to become a free agent and test himself in Europe's intense soccer culture. For Pontius, however, the decision to re-sign instead of play out the remainder of his contract involved myriad considerations. If the lack of national team experience pushed him to conclude that it was best to stay, then the growth of MLS, his team's improvement and the possibility of a sale abroad in the future made the decision a much easier pill to swallow.
Europe remains the dream, but MLS is not such a bad reality.
Jason Davis is an independent soccer writer and podcaster. He talks American soccer twice weekly on The Best Soccer Show and writes on the same around the Internet. He can be found on Twitter at @davisjsn and at firstname.lastname@example.org.