Markus Halsti joined D.C. United last winter as a prized offseason addition, bringing national team experience and a UEFA Champions League pedigree to the club's spine.
On paper, it was a savvy acquisition. In execution, Halsti didn't live up to expectations after a preseason knee injury — and he's the first to acknowledge as much.
"Mentally, the hardest of course was coming back from an injury and really understanding that you're not where you want to be," Halsti told Goal USA. "It was a challenging year for me."
Arriving from Swedish side Malmo, Halsti sprained his right knee in February 2015 and sat out 10 league matches before making his MLS debut in mid-May. Although the Finland international developed into a useful role player as United balanced league play with the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup, he made just 14 regular season appearances.
With the veteran at times struggling to assert his influence on matches, he didn't lock down a starting slot until Davy Arnaud's late-season concussion. In Halsti's words, he was "catching up basically — the whole way up to the playoffs." Although he felt confident while appearing in Euro 2016 qualifiers for Finland, that form didn't always translate to MLS play.
Having spent his previous 12 professional seasons in his native Scandinavia, Halsti wasn't deterred by his underwhelming foray into the unknown. If anything, last season's tribulations only fueled his desire to leave a mark in MLS.
"After that season, there was so much energy and everything inside of me wanted to continue here and show the fans and show myself and show the coaches that I can actually do this," Halsti said. "I wanted to show that the injury is gone and I can play at my own level, which I felt last year I didn't succeed doing in many games."
With United moving on from club stalwart Perry Kitchen and Arnaud still dealing with post-concussion issues, Halsti will be leaned on from the start in 2016. Kitchen started at least 30 matches each of the past five seasons for United and played his way into the U.S. national team picture, leaving a considerable hole that United hopes Halsti can fill.
"The second year is always a little bit easier for foreign players," United coach Ben Olsen said. "You see this all the time. You've seen a lot of people give up on players right away, but you also see them a year and a half in [and say], 'Yeah, this is why we got him.' He's an experienced player and he's going to help in a big way this year."
After frequently sharing two-way midfield responsibilities while partnering with Kitchen last season, Halsti should be deployed as a traditional defensive midfielder in 2016 following the acquisition of attack-minded veteran Marcelo Sarvas.
It's perhaps a more comfortable situation for Halsti, who also provides depth at center back. With United boasting a slew of new attacking weapons — including playmaker Luciano Acosta and wingers Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko — the 31-year-old will be counted on to circulate the ball for a team that finished 15th in possession last season.
"He's an intelligent soccer player," goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra said. "Sometimes the game gets pacy and you start losing balls, and he has more of a calming effect on the team. His decision-making is great, so he kind of controls the pace of the game."
Added forward Fabian Espindola: "We need him right now. He has great technique, and he gives us a little pause in the midfield."
With Halsti and his wife welcoming their second child last month, it already has been a gratifying year off the field. While getting used to the hustle and bustle of the nation's capital has taken some time, Halsti has embraced the opportunity to immerse himself in an unfamiliar culture.
Now he hopes to make his intregration on the field as smooth as his transition off it.
"Coming to D.C., it's a pretty big area with lots of traffic, lots of cars," Halsti said. "You have a lot of differences when it comes to Scandinavia, but we love it — there is so much to do in D.C. We're happy to be here, and we'll see what the future brings."
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