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After long layoff, Markus Halsti finally ready to make D.C. United debut

With his knee injury finally behind him, Halsti will likely make the bench for tomorrow's game against Sporting Kansas City

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When D.C. United navigated their 2014 offseason, they did so with prudence in realizing that only a few changes needed to be made to the side that won the 2014 MLS Eastern Conference in regular season play. The main core of that team was returning, meaning that just a few select players would need to be brought in to help the Black-and-Red clear that playoff hurdle.

One of the main pieces that was identified, and then brought in, was Finnish midfielder and defender, Markus Halsti. Out of contract after his time at Malmo FF in Sweden, and looking for a new challenge, Halsti inked a deal with United, and looked to become the missing piece to the puzzle.

But a knee injury picked up in pre-season has meant that Halsti has yet to see the field for D.C. That is all about to change, as United manager Ben Olsen said that Halsti will be included in the match day 18 in Saturday's game against Sporting Kansas City.

"It's been a little over 11 weeks now that I've been with the injury," Halsti told reporters on Friday. "It takes some time to get to the level that I would like to be. I'm anxious, whether [I play] tomorrow or next week, I just want to be on the field and play football. That has been the motivation for the past three months."

One of the biggest questions surrounding Halsti, is where Olsen will slot him into the team. Halsti has spent a majority of his career at both center back and center midfield. But he's made appearances at right back and left back. He most recently played left back against France in 2012 in a 2014 World Cup qualifier.

Despite all that, he prefers to play one position, but knows that he's now stepping into a side that doesn't need him to fill in immediately.

"I like to play in one position. That is the best thing. But if the team needs me, I play for the team," Halsti added. "I rather have one position to play, but it's Ben who decides. I'd rather not have it where Saturday I play right back, Wednesday I play left back, Sunday I play center mid. I've done it before, but mentally it's exhausting."

Halsti is unlikely to see much time out wide in the defense here with United, but Olsen admitted that he's not willing to tie Halsti down to just one position, at least without time at both in league play.

"I'm not going to narrow one down. The guy's played Champions League in one position, and played for one of the better teams in Scandinavia at another position," Olsen told B&RU on Friday. "That's the luxury of having a piece like Markus, and part of us signing [him]. I'm not ready to pigeonhole him in where he fits to us right now."

"On a bigger scale, he can do both. A lot of [his position] is going to depend on where we need him. Again, that's the luxury of having a guy that can do both."

While spending the last three months on the sideline, Halsti has been able to take in a lot of his new surroundings with D.C. United, and MLS in general. Most of what he expected, and what he talked about with Olsen in December before signing with the club, has come to fruition.

"Every game is a tough game. It's hard to put MLS teams into [one category]. Every team has its own kind of football," said Halsti. "It was one of the most interesting parts in coming here. It's been like almost every one of our games has been [decided] in the last five minutes. There are close games. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. I knew that every week was going to be a tough week."

In addition, Halsti said that United's ethos jived with how he played the game. When Halsti played with Malmo in the UEFA Champions League group stages, he was near the top of all players in distance covered in the six games. He focuses on playing with the team, and for the team, especially on the defensive end.

That defensive focus last weekend against the Columbus Crew, where United were protecting a two goal lead, stuck out in particular to Halsti.

"In the last game, how we closed the game in the last half hour, the way the team defended, that is exactly what I expected," added Halsti. "I think everyone worked for the team, and Columbus, they didn't have that much to create. Even if they had the ball, on our side, in the last third, they didn't create anything because we were working really good as a team. And that's exactly what I want to see when we are winning the game."

Halsti is also super aware of some the new challenges that he faces, logistically, in playing in MLS. In addition to the travel, which is unlike anything he faced in Sweden, even accounting for Champions League games, there is also the heat and humidity that will factor in here in the next couple of months.

The Finn admitted to playing in some games in Europe that were in warm temperatures, similar to what he will face here. But those only occurred in a two week period, and lacked the the humidity that say, a June trip to Orlando will have. Such as, Halsti has put an extra focus in his training to work on his conditioning, so that he is ready for the dog days of summer.

"I have to build up my conditioning to that level that I'm able to plus when it's 95 and really humid. But I love challenges," said Halsti. "People were talking about the traveling and that kind of stuff. When you see positive challenges, you have to take it. That's why I'm working hard. When I'm talking to you guys in three months, I don't want to complain that I didn't do enough, and I wasn't ready."

Once Halsti does finally make it on to the pitch, there will still be some mystery into how he adapts to the play, whether it's the speed or physicality of the league. It's one thing to build relationships with teammates in practice and try to get up to speed for games. It's another to step out on the field and to perform.

But Olsen believes that Halsti's time in Scandinavia has prepared him for such challenges, when he finally does make his Black-and-Red debut.

"I think certain leagues do translate quicker to our league. Scandinavian leagues, in particular the higher quality teams, tend to translate very well to our league," Olsen said. "There will be some ups and downs with him coming back into this team. But he's a great pro, he's been through a lot of games. He's very seasoned, and we're happy to have him, and look forward to seeing him out on the field shortly."