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D.C. United’s Victor Palsson is a ‘very different person’ from his first MLS stint

Victor Palsson joined D.C. United from German club Schalke this summer. (D.C. United)

Victor Palsson, D.C. United’s latest newcomer to receive a work visa, will begin his second MLS tour this weekend.

He barely remembers the first.

Ten years ago, the Icelandic midfielder was 21, playing for the New York Red Bulls and living across the Hudson River from the temptations of Manhattan.

“I probably spent more time in the nightclub than on the pitch,” he said in an interview Thursday, two days before his probable D.C. debut at New England. “Every day was Saturday [night], if I wanted it to be. Soccer was number two; lifestyle was number one.”

Predisposed to addiction because of his family history — both parents had alcohol and drug problems, he said, and his mother died of an overdose two years ago at 47 — Palsson almost threw away a career that promised to take off upon joining Liverpool in 2009.

A partial season with the Red Bulls fell in the middle of a troubled stretch that featured five clubs over four years.

“I had a lot of demons inside of me that I just didn’t know how to deal with,” he said. “So I would use escapes.”

The wake-up call came in 2014, when he said no clubs wanted any part of him because of his personal issues. He cleaned himself up and said he has been sober for eight years.

“I’m a very different person,” he said. “I’ve had to go through some tough stuff to be who I am today. I don’t regret anything because I’m here now. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’m proud of where I’ve come as a person and as a player.”

Palsson said he divides his career into two parts: 2007 to 2014 and everything since.

In the first half, there was a lot of “drinking and partying and not focusing on what was important,” he said. “I was f---ing things up for myself, but I didn’t see that.”

In New York, he didn’t make it through the whole season.

“I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t doing well in life,” Palsson said. “I barely remember that time.”

His problems continued with his next club, NEC Nijmegen in the Netherlands, which, after two years, told him to not report to preseason in 2014.

“I had burned all the bridges around me — family, girlfriend, friends,” he said. “Everything was rock bottom. So I had to make a decision to turn my life around.”

He said he sought counseling and worked with a psychologist and other mental health specialists. (He said he remains in regular contact with them.) He leaned on childhood friends.

Swedish club Helsingborgs gave him a second chance, offering a three-month contract to prove himself as a person and player. That was followed by moves to Denmark, Switzerland and 2½ years with Darmstadt in Germany’s second division.

While there, he learned of his mother’s death.

“When she was sober, she was my mom,” he said. “When she was using, she was someone else.”

The emotional toll hit him hard but, thanks in part to his support system, he said he never came close to relapse.

“I grew up in difficult circumstances [in Reykjavik], without that one person to help you along the way as a young person,” said Palsson, who added that his father is not a presence in his life. “It was just me.”

After Darmstadt, Palsson played a pivotal role in helping Schalke, a famed German club, gain promotion back to the Bundesliga after one year adrift.

Staying with Schalke in a top-five European league seemed like a perfect scenario, but uncertainty over his role this season and a desire to live in North America drew him to MLS. His girlfriend and their 5-year-old son live in her native British Columbia; the family plans to reunite permanently in the D.C. area this winter.

United’s interest in Palsson started last year, but the timing for a move wasn’t right for either side. This summer, seeking a defensive midfielder with experience and an edge to his game, the club paid an undisclosed transfer fee to Schalke and made Palsson one of its three designated players.

Wayne Rooney, United’s new coach, said he knew of Palsson over the years. “If you hear him speak, he sounds like he is from Liverpool” with a Scouse accent, the Liverpool-born Rooney said with a grin.

While working on his European coaching license last year, Rooney received an assignment to analyze Schalke. Palsson, one of the team’s captains, started 28 of 34 league matches as the club finished first.

“He likes to tackle, which we need in the middle of the pitch,” Rooney said. “You can already see his character — wanting to play, wanting to learn, how we can improve. It’s really good for the coach to have a player who’s so invested and interested in how we can all develop.”

Palsson also remains in the Icelandic national team player pool, having made 29 appearances and scored once.

As his club career takes a fresh turn, Palsson said he must continue working on his life’s path.

“It’s a live process,” he said. “But I do know what is good for me. I do know what’s bad for me. I do know where I feel comfortable and where I don’t feel comfortable. I know what’s the right thing for me to do in my work but also in life — mostly in life.”

Notes: Ecuadoran forward Michael Estrada (four goals, four assists) left the team by mutual consent and is expected to join a Mexican club soon. He was on a season-long loan from Toluca (Mexico). With Rooney shaking things up, Estrada hadn’t been in uniform for weeks. …

Rookie midfielder Jackson Hopkins was cleared to play after leaving Saturday’s match with a knee injury. …

Goalkeeper David Ochoa, acquired in a July trade with Real Salt Lake, will be in uniform for the first time Saturday, Rooney said. He or Rafael Romo will start.

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