Losing Finlay highlights MNUFC's greatest needs
Now-former MNUFC winger Ethan Finlay, a free agent this offseason, has signed a two-year deal with Austin FC.
Finlay, who hit 31 in August, is one of those “solid career” type of MLS guys. Though he was born in Duluth, he grew up in North Carolina and then Marshfield, Wisconsin. He was driven enough that, when his parents opted to move to Marshfield when he was 12, he informed them that they were killing his soccer career.
Marshfield not being a soccer hotbed, Finlay would play on teams in Madison (145 miles away) and then in Milwaukee (191 miles), and it was enough to earn him a spot at Creighton University. You wouldn’t think that Omaha would be a soccer hotbed, either, but Creighton has been a consistent source of soccer talent, and a landing spot for Midwestern guys; Twin Cities natives Brent Kallman and Eric Miller both launched MLS careers from Creighton. And it worked for Finlay, who became a Hermann Trophy finalist and a top-10 MLS draft pick for Columbus.
In Columbus, Finlay had a breakout season in his third year, scoring 11 goals. The next year, in 2015, he was even better, scoring 12 and setting up 12 more as the Crew reached the MLS Cup final. He was an All-Star that year, and named to the league’s Best XI at the end of the year. When he re-signed with Columbus that winter, the announcement called him an “ascendant star” and noted that only Robbie Keane and Bradley Wright-Phillips had more combined goals and assists over the past two seasons. It even earned him a couple of call-ups to the U.S. national team, both in the annual January camp that winter and then for World Cup qualifiers in March, where he played 20 minutes in a win over Guatemala.
And then, well, things went wrong for Columbus, and Finlay. He scored six goals and set up six more, but the Crew missed the playoffs, and in 2017 he’d managed just a goal and assist in 19 games. Columbus signed another right winger, Pedro Santos, as a Designated Player, and the writing was on the wall; the Crew dealt Finlay at the deadline to Minnesota for a chunk of cash.
This was in the middle of Minnesota’s first MLS season, and by this point it was clear that the Loons were going to have to do a certain amount of switching boats in midstream. At the time, Finlay was approximately the tenth winger on the Loons’ roster, but after the team’s repeated face-plants to begin the year, they were on the search for talent of any kind.
Twenty-seven different players started at least one game for the Loons that year, and the kindest label you could apply to a lot of them was “inconsistent.” Minnesota built its inaugural squad with a few guys from their successful NASL sides, a few MLS veterans, a few MLS up-and-comers, and - oddly - a group of fairly unknown internationals from Nordic countries, on the theory that they could be easily convinced to play on the frozen tundra. It was the last group that particularly did not click; three of the four were back in Europe by mid-summer, and the Loons were rebuilding on the fly.
What Finlay brought to the Loons, then and over the following four years, was professionalism. He was the template for the guys that eventually turned Minnesota into a team that made the playoffs three years in a row: solid pros.
He turned 31 this year, and scored his 50th goal in MLS. He was not part of United’s first-choice attacking front four, and yet, paradoxically, he played more matches in 2021 than any of the first-choice players, starting 19 - the same as Franco Fragapane, two fewer than Robin Lod, and three fewer than Adrian Hunou.
His ability to play on the right wing was what gave the team any attacking flexibility at all. He would play on the right of Hunou or Lod, or would come in as a substitute for Hunou while Lod switched from the right to playing up front. He ran the hard yards without being an offensive focal point, always in the channel between the left center back and the left back, trying to stretch the defense. No longer an ascendant star, he’d become something that is also important to winning soccer teams: reliable.
Constructing a first eleven is one thing, for an MLS team. The realm of Designated Players and Allocation Money is spent to try to find those players that are a cut above the rest, that can provide more than just dependability. But to win, every team needs to find guys like Finlay, that can start and can back up and be dependable in both roles.
Minnesota has its starting lineup already filled out for next season, mostly. Ten of the eleven guys that started the playoff game with Portland are signed for next season, as well as first-choice goalkeeper Tyler Miller; only veteran Ozzie Alonso is still a free agent. But the depth on the roster - the guys like Finlay - is mostly missing. If the Loons are going to win next year, if they are going to weather injuries and try different lineup combinations and do all the things that good teams do on the way to the playoffs - they need to find more Finlays to make it work.
Leaving aside that current starting eleven (Miller; Métanire, Dibassy, Boxall, Gasper; Dotson, Trapp; Reynoso, Fragapane, Lod, Hunou) and backup keeper Dayne St. Clair, here’s who Minnesota has backing up.
Striker: Patrick Weah is out with an ACL injury, so right now all the Loons have is youngster Aziel Jackson, who may not even be a number 9.
Winger: The Loons were high enough on Niko Hansen that he made five starts early in the season, before injuries derailed his year. Right now, he’s in line to replace Finlay; young Justin McMaster is the only other forward held over from 2021.
Midfield: The one issue with Hassani Dotson being in the starting lineup is that he can’t provide cover at every other position on the field if he’s already in the starting eleven; he’s first in line to play every midfield position, both fullback positions, and both wing positions if need be. Other than him, the Loons have no backup number 10. Joseph Rosales showed promise in central midfield at a young age. Jacori Hayes was a depth option last year, and ended up making seven starts.
Defense: DJ Taylor played both fullback spots. Callum Montgomery and Nabi Kibunguchy played center back in the USL. Fred Emmings is a homegrown goalkeeper.
That, right now, is MNUFC’s depth. Three mid-20s guys who were spot starters last year, two young players who didn’t make a start, two Homegrown players (one injured), and three guys who played in the USL.
They need more. They know they need more. And the type of guys they need are like Ethan Finlay: solid pros who will do a job.