Markus Halsti joined D.C. United back in January 2015 as the team’s marquee offseason acquisition. United were coming in on the heels of a successful 2014, when they finished first in the Eastern Conference, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Red Bulls. The core of the team, which was solidified leading up to the 2014 season, remained intact, with Halsti brought in from Swedish powerhouse Malmö FF to compete for time in central midfield with Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen.
Both Arnaud and Kitchen left the team before the 2016 season: Kitchen was off to Scotland to play for Heart of Midlothian, while Arnaud retired after a concussion suffered last August forced him to step into coaching. Injuries kept Halsti out during the early portion of 2016, and he was never able to find a spot within the team; the Finnish international eventually had his contract mutually terminated at the end of May.
Halsti, now with FC Midtjylland in Denmark, recently gave an interview in Swedish in which he talked about his time with D.C. United. The Google translation of the interview was less than ideal in terms of clarity, so B&RU reached out to Halsti to get his comments on his time in D.C. in English. Though there are situations that he wishes had turned out differently, the move to the USA is one that he is glad he made.
"I will definitely never... regret of coming to D.C United. Mostly I feel sad that we didn't achieve our dream together as a team," Halsti said in an email exchange with B&RU.
Halsti’s season in 2016 never got off of the ground. With Kitchen gone, and Arnaud toeing the line of whether or not to retire, it seemed like the number six position in Ben Olsen’s lineup would belong to Halsti. Marcelo Sarvas was brought in at the beginning of February, and then Halsti injured his knee in a pre-season game against the Philadelphia Union. Halsti played in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Queretaro as a substitute, but that would be his lone appearance in a DC jersey in 2016.
"[I] had pain and trouble to do anything from that [one] but tried to recover at the same time as I kept playing," Halsti wrote in the email. "Now, later, it's of course easy to say that I should have just stayed out of the pitch and do the recovery which normally should have been about 6 weeks. But that was my own decision of course."
According to Halsti, he was fit by the beginning of April. His knee had recovered, but he would never again be named to the bench for United, including the trip at the end of April to play the Chicago Fire, when Olsen could only field six subs in the 1-1 draw. He was on the outside looking in during practices, not selected for the full team drills, instead having to work out on his own.
The team declined to provide a statement to this story, saying that they do not comment on a player that is no longer with the team.
"Well, as it was clear that I've no space in the team anymore, I was that guy who was standing outside the pitch when team played for example 11v11 or did some other exercises," said Halsti. "What I did though was that I always got some cones and some balls. And kept training in my own, doing runs and other exercises off the pitch."
And that created confusion about Halsti’s status. Everything coming from the team said that Halsti was not fit, and wasn’t ready to play games for United. That news got back home, and so even though Halsti believed that he was fit and ready to go on the field, not playing any part of in United’s plan drove home the idea that he was not physically able to play games.
"What I told about the injury in the interview was that how surprised I was when my friends were still asking how's the knee weeks later I've came back, as in different sites I was still listed as knee injured," Halsti said, mentioning MLSsoccer.com by name.
In May, he got a phone call from the Finnish FA about his potential availability to play in the team’s friendly games set for the start of June. "Then finally, two weeks before the national team games against Belgium and Italy, I got a call from the Finnish FA asking how's the knee recovering as they also have thought that I was still injured."
That was around the time that Halsti and the team was finalizing the termination of his contract. Having not played in any competitive game for over two months, Halsti credits the work that he did on the side, working out on his own, as the reason why he was able to put in two 90 minute performances for Finland.
"Rather than just watching what the guys are doing and feeling sorry about the situation, I did my best every day and in the end that paid off as I played good games in summer friendlies, 180 [minutes] in one week," wrote Halsti.
And those performances helped showcase that he was still healthy, which led to him signing with FC Midtjylland, where he joined the ranks of the Danish side on July 1st.
"[I] wouldn't be here playing in one of the Danish top teams at the moment if I would have not trained like I trained the whole spring and believed myself," Halsti added.
In the interview over in Sweden, Halsti was trying to relay to fans over there about his time in the United States with D.C. United. Hence, his conversation about the openness of United’s practices. Halsti said he was used to practices being more open to fans and media in Sweden, noting that practices with Midtjylland are even more transparent.
"Coming from a very different culture where things are done pretty much opposite, I wanted to tell that to the fans in Sweden," said Halsti.
"Actually we have even more open culture in Denmark, where at least for now all the sessions have been free to public. For my personally, it feels like the team is easily reachable for their fans and therefore I like it myself."
The topic of tactics and training also came up in the interview Halsti did overseas. In the translation, it appeared that he said that Olsen’s practices contained no tactics. But Halsti told a different story to B&RU, one in which he said the emphasis was placed on the individual within a tactical system, as opposed to what he was accustomed to through his years of playing in Europe.
So he wasn’t bashing Olsen’s approach, as it might have seemed from the translation, but rather noting that United's approach was simply different from the way things are done in Scandinavian leagues. But Halsti admits that he struggled to cope with the change, not ever feeling completely comfortable in the way Olsen’s United went about winning games.
"I never overcame the transition from a organised, tactically well trained team, where both offense and defense worked in harmony, everybody knew their roles and where you would train it almost to a perfection," wrote Halsti. "To a more individually orchestrated team, where players themselves make decision on the pitch, following their own instincts."
"It's just a different approach to this beautiful game and like I said before, I wasn't up to it, at least not then. I realized that a big part was that I wasn't able to adjust the different culture of the game itself. Of course the injuries played a big part but still I would say that the biggest reason why I didn't came up to my level was inside my head."
With the injury to start the 2015 season, Halsti’s career with United never really got off the ground. He eventually played 14 times for United during the MLS regular season, to include appearances in the Champions League group stage games, and all three games United played in the playoffs. But there was always something missing from his performances on the field, which is why United decided to move on this year.
Still, Halsti has plenty of good memories from his time here, despite his career needing a restart back in Europe.
"But that time really help me to grow personally, we got to meet a lot of wonderful people and most important of all, our second daughter was born in Alexandria. So there's a lot of positive memories from that time," said Halsti.