If good indeed rewards the patient, Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay has proven himself a man willing to wait.
Finlay did so when he sought his elusive first goal in Major League Soccer for more than his first two seasons. When it finally came, it triggered a breakout 11-goal season with Columbus in 2014.
Now the Duluth native waits again, this time for another first goal on his way back from knee surgery early last season.
Last Saturday at Chicago, Finlay’s shot at an open goal from just outside the 6-yard box went just wide early in the 2-0 loss when it was still scoreless. He controlled teammate Jan Gregus’ long free kick with his chest, but his right-footed shot headed outside the post on the short, left side and was deflected by a Fire defender anyway during a season in which Finlay is searching to regain his timing and touch.
The midfielder used an old German idiom to describe his current situation with a team that has scored twice in four games but still is tied for fifth in the league in goals scored.
“For me, it’s getting off the schneid right now,” he said. “It took me two, three years there to get my first goal for my club and right now, I’m going through a bit of rough patch. Once I get that one, you get another check off the box and you move forward.”
This Saturday, Finlay makes his first appearance against Columbus, which chose him 10th overall in the 2012 SuperDraft and for which he played six seasons. He scored those 11 goals in 2014, then was named to MLS’ Best XI and an All-Star in 2015, when he scored 12 goals and had 13 assists. He did so for Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, now the U.S. men’s national team coach.
The Crew traded him in August 2017, sending him back to the state where he was born for $425,000 in allocation money.
“They’ve had a lot of changes, a lot of turnover — players, coaches, ownership, all of the above,” Finlay said. “It looks very different, but there will be no love lost for me. I’ve still got guys I know over there. I want to beat them and I want to beat them here at home.”
Finlay played for Columbus against United at TCF Bank Stadium on July 4 in 2017, little more than a month before he was traded.
He was injured and watched from the stands when United lost at Columbus on last season’s final day. He called that return “an interesting situation” and calls Saturday’s game just another one even if it clearly isn’t.
“I’m excited for this one,” said Finlay, a former Creighton star who turns 29 in August. “I’m trying not to get too up for it. In all honesty, I’m trying to be composed in the moment and understand it is just another game. It is an important one.”
He uses that same phrase — composed in the moment — to describe the state of mind he must rediscover before the goals come again.
Finlay has played all 11 games this season and started six of them. He is on the same road back from injury as teammate Kevin Molino, only several weeks ahead.
“It doesn’t come overnight,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “People think you’re fit, but when you’ve been out for a year, you don’t just go, ‘Oh, I’m back in the groove.’ It takes you a couple more months to get there. … Ethan’s back to where he was when he arrived here.”
He’s back, searching to find composure in that moment.
“That’s what I have to do,” Finlay said. “Sometimes you tend to rush stuff when you haven’t seen it in a long time. For me, it’s being patient. When the moment comes, hopefully I’m ready for it. And once it happens, it’ll be just the first of many.”