WASHINGTON – There weren’t many bright spots in D.C. United’s performance against the Philadelphia Union on Sunday, one that saw a heavy legged United give up a stoppage-time game-winner to a Philly crew that had been in free fall.
But there were a few, one of them the debut of Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti, United’s biggest offseason signing who prior to Sunday had not played a competitive minute for the club. Though the former Malmö workhorse was not perfect, he gave United fans a glimpse of the composure the club expect him to bring to D.C.’s midfield.
It was something United head coach Ben Olsen was quick to pick up on after the match.
"I thought he was great,” Olsen told the media in attendance at United’s training session Wednesday morning. "He was exactly what we ordered – a guy that knows how to play the game. His passing is good, calm.”
Olsen actually thought Halsti could have been involved even more, if he and fellow midfielder Perry Kitchen had been utilized as outlets.
“I think that would’ve helped out the game a little bit more, but overall I’m very pleased,” Olsen said. “ His fitness can get better, but of course it can. They were his first minutes in a while."
Halsti sprained his knee during the final week of United’s preseason training camp, an injury that typically carries a four- to six-week recovery time. Things didn’t pan out that way. Halsi’s knock proved a bit more serious than anticipated, and one month became two. Twelve weeks later, the Finn found himself walking out of the tunnel at PPL Park, ready for his first meaningful action in a United uniform.
“I was a little nervous in the beginning,” Halsti told MLSsoccer.com after United’s 1-0 loss. "I’m not 20 anymore, so I had to start reading the game pretty quickly. It was great just to be on the pitch – even just walking out on to the pitch pregame, it was great. I’ve been away quite a while, but the speed of the game was what I expected – a lot of fighting, lot of duels. It was pretty much what I expected.”
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Halsti – who at varying points in his career has been used as a defensive midfielder, center back and even fullback – partnered with defensive midfielder Kitchen on Sunday. Though Halsti featured for United in preseason action, Sunday’s match was his first opportunity to partner with Kitchen, who spent much of United’s preseason on US national team duty.
"I was a little worried going in that it was going to be two No. 6s fighting over the space in front of the center backs,” Olsen said on Wednesday. “But I thought their spacing was very good. They seem to have a good understanding of how to play that tandem spot, and they’re experienced guys, both of them.”
On Sunday evening, Halsti mentioned that he and Kitchen – who recently has become increasingly involved in the offensive side of things – had perhaps failed to cover for one another, a mark of a center-midfield duo lacking in familiarity more than anything else. On Wednesday, he elaborated on those thoughts.
"Perry is a really hardworking guy,” Halsti told MLSsoccer.com. "You see that sometimes we went to the same balls, same areas and tried to work as hard as we can. He's covering so much [space] defensively. Last year I actually played with a guy who was the same type of player. Sometimes it clicks, sometimes we're both in for the same ball.”