Matti Peltola, D.C. United’s newest acquisition, grew up in Finland playing hockey as well as soccer.
His favorite NHL player these days?
“I like to follow Connor McDavid,” he said of the Edmonton Oilers superstar. “He’s just so good.”
Peltola then gave the question more thought.
“Oh, maybe I should say [Alex] Ovechkin because now I am in D.C., so it’s better,” he said with a laugh.
Soon, Peltola will embrace the District’s sports scene as both athlete and fan. On Friday, as preseason workouts in Saudi Arabia continued, United confirmed it had acquired the 21-year-old free agent.
First, United secured his MLS rights from Minnesota for $75,000 in financial considerations, known as allocation money. (Minnesota had targeted him last summer.) Then, D.C. signed him to a four-year contract, with a club option in 2028.
Salary details were not disclosed, but Peltola will be a “young designated player.” Each team is permitted three designated players, whose high-end contracts fall outside MLS’s standard guidelines.
A young DP (age 23 and under) does not count against the salary cap as much as a senior player. (United’s senior DPs are striker Christian Benteke and midfielder Mateusz Klich.)
“Matti is a bright young talent who had significant interest around Europe,” Ally Mackay, United’s general manager and chief soccer officer, said in a statement. “He has an exceptional passing range and vision in the midfield combined with a defensive intuition on the other side of the ball. He’s mature beyond his years on the field.”
Though the deal wasn’t announced until Friday, United quietly welcomed Peltola to training headquarters in Leesburg, Va., more than two weeks ago. (Because he wasn’t under contract, he couldn’t practice with the full group.)
Peltola said he had several options in Europe before choosing to sign with United.
“You try to read between the lines and listen to your gut feeling: Do they really want me?” he said. “When I spoke with Ally and D.C., I really had this feeling that this is a club that wants me, and that was a big thing in the decision.”
For three years, Peltola was a prominent figure with HJK Helsinki, Finland’s most decorated club. He made 95 appearances across all competitions, including UEFA Champions League qualifiers and Europa League matches.
Last year, though, he sought to expand his horizons.
HJK “understood the situation and there was no debate about it,” Peltola said. “We were on the same page.”
Peltola debuted with the Finnish national team in early 2023 and played in four European Championship qualifiers. He expects to receive a call-up for a European Championship qualifying playoff March 21 at Wales. If Finland wins, it would face Poland or Estonia five days later for a place in this summer’s tournament in Germany.
Finland has never qualified for the World Cup but, in 2021, advanced to the European Championship for the first time and upset Denmark in the group opener.
Joining the national team was a natural ascension for Peltola after featuring with Finnish youth squads for several years.
He is the sixth current Finnish national team player on an MLS roster, joining, among others, Minnesota’s Teemu Pukki, the country’s all-time scoring leader.
“The whole league is now appreciated in a different way in Europe,” he said. “Many people I’ve been talking to said they are expecting it to develop year by year, so I saw it as a great opportunity for me.”
In MLS, Peltola will face two of his heroes, Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets, the former Barcelona stars.
He also said he was eager to explore Washington and the United States. Before reporting to training camp, he had never visited the country.
“I’ve been watching a lot of movies, and you want to see how it is there, not only in New York or Los Angeles but also the nature. There’s so many different things to see,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing more of D.C. and America in general.”
United wants to see Peltola embrace new coach Troy Lesesne’s plans and prepare for the Feb. 24 opener against the New England Revolution at Audi Field. Peltola is expected to make his preseason debut Saturday against Saudi club Al Wehda, the second of four tuneups in the Middle East.
Though Peltola has played extensively on the backline, as well as in defensive midfield, United plans to use him in the latter role. Lesesne has not revealed his tactical plans, but in all likelihood, Peltola will partner with veteran Russell Canouse in defensive midfield.
“I think that is my main position,” he said.
During downtime, Peltola hopes to see hockey in person.
“It’s kind of hard to see the NHL games when you’re in Finland because of the time difference, sometimes 3 or 4 a.m.,” he said. “I am used to watching the playoff games the next morning.”