For Red Bulls defender Markus Holgersson, every new challenge is something for him to conquer. It was a mindset he learned when he thought his soccer career was over and he enlisted in the Swedish military.
Many European players find their first year in MLS a difficult transition with a new culture, playing style and longer travel in the United States. Holgersson was no different, but after those first few rough weeks in the league, he has settled into the heart of the Red Bulls defense.
Growing up as part of Swedish club Helsingborg’s youth academy, Holgersson wasn’t offered a contract for the senior team and instead enlisted in the military.
At the time, military service was mandatory in his homeland — that changed in 2010 — but Holgersson decided to stay longer than the usual 10 months to see where the armed forces would take him.
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“You do 15 months and then see what you’re going to do. I did 15 months then went to a university, played at a lower level and then went back to Helsingborg,” Holgersson told Metro.
During those 15 months, he served in Sweden’s equivalent of the Marines and thrived. Holgersson said he decided to do the full 15 months “just to see what I could do.”
This past winter, Holgersson decided to move to MLS, where he joins a growing contingent of Scandinavian players on the Red Bulls.
Holgersson’s first few starts were marred by mistakes and many fans labeled him a bust. That’s beginning to change.
“I think he’s been quite solid for us. Defending wise, everyone makes some errors but defending wise,” head coach Hans Backe said. “He has surprised me with his fitness, his strength.”
There is arguably no player on the Red Bulls who dedicates himself to conditioning as much as Holgersson. He is tedious in his preparation for practice including conditioning and diet, the trickle down from his time in the military.
“You learn lot because you learn so much about yourself — you’re tired, no food. It is stressful. You have to aim at the goal every time. It has helped me a lot in my career,” Holgersson said. “There [are] things you learn about yourself. You learn a lot about yourself from that type of an experience.”
Now when Holgersson plays in triple digit temperatures as he did last Wednesday afternoon in a 1-0 win over Chicago, he takes the preparation and mentality from his military service and carries it onto the pitch.
The Red Bulls’ defense has had consecutive shutouts in their last two games as Holgersson continues to get more comfortable with his teammates.
“I think we’ve been better together. Of course I’ve improved individually. You have to think a little bit different, but the team is going to play much better together when you work as a unit. I do the same for the other players back there; they do the same thing for me,” Holgersson said. “Last game it was no problem for us. It has been much better for not just me, but for everyone back there.”
Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for more news and live updates from practice.