WASHINGTON, D.C. – With his visa secured, his contract sorted out and a week of Florida-based training under his belt, D.C. United midfielder/defender Markus Halsti arrived in the District of Columbia on Saturday afternoon and very quickly did what any newcomer to the nation’s capital does: He hit the National Mall.
“I went sightseeing – by walking,” Halsti told MLSsoccer.com the following day, in between frames of an impromptu bowling session at United’s annual season ticket holder meet-and-greet. "Maybe that’s not the best idea; a bike would be nice. I was walking like 14 kilometers. I want to experience this city, that’s one reason I’ve come to MLS and to D.C. I know it’s a new culture for me, but that’s nothing I’m afraid of."
The Finnish international and UEFA Champions League veteran arrives at United just months after leading Swedish side Malmo FF to back-to-back Allsvenskan championships. Acquired in early January, Halsti brings some much-needed versatility to Ben Olsen’s squad; he can play center back, center mid and has made occasional appearances at outside back as well.
“Halsti has fit right in both on and off the field,” said Olsen. "We were pretty confident in what we were getting with him, and he’s been exactly what we wanted. Super professional, knows our system – it was similar to what he was playing [at Malmo] – and each day he’s been getting more comfortable with the guys and more comfortable on the field.”
Halsti seems the early favorite to pair with Perry Kitchen at center mid, allowing 2014 starter Davy Arnaud the freedom to assume a utility role. But his ability to provide cover at full back and also center back – where United would be a bit thin should Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum miss time due to injury or a national team call-up – could prove invaluable to a United side that will be stretched thin by CONCACAF Champions League play.
"Of course Ben and I have been thinking about [where I’ll play],” he said. “I’ve been starting as a midfielder [in preseason] so we’ll see. For me, Ben knows that I’m a team player. I want to help the team to be the best. If that means that I play center half or midfielder or right back, that’s up to Ben. For me, I’d prefer to play centrally. Either a center midfielder or center half. But again, I’ll play wherever."
Having taken part in all 12 of Malmo’s UEFA Champions League matches in 2014, Halsti had plenty of options when it came time to leave Sweden. He chose to come to the States in part because of his time training in Florida, where he and Malmo scrimmaged D.C. in two of the past three seasons.
"It gave me an idea of how things are done here, how well the MLS clubs are organized, how everything is fixed for the players,” said Halsti. "The players here maybe don’t understand how professional things are here, how the staff takes care of everything to help the players play better, do better, when it comes to food, coaching, whatever.
"It can be of course a lot bigger in Europe – but for me at least [MLS] has been like everything I expected. It’s really positive, they do everything they can here to help you get better as a player – and that’s why I came to MLS, to get better. I think this is a good step for me from Sweden, from Champions League to come to MLS.”
Capped 20 times, the Finn remains in the picture for his national side, and consulted Finland national team head coach Mixu Paatelainen prior to making the move overseas.
"We talked about it before I came here,” said Halsti. "I told him this was an option, he said, 'Go for it.' I want to be on the national team. For the national team this move doesn’t make anything different. I hope I’m in the next camp – we have a game at the end of March.
“There wasn’t any hesitation from my coach about me coming to MLS, none at all.”