If you measure success after knee surgery solely by goals and assists, Minnesota United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay made a breakthrough of sorts with three goals delivered in the past two games, two of them alone in Saturday’s 5-3 loss at FC Dallas.
He himself measures it with more complex mathematics, by the reams of data coaches and conditioning staff compile each game on his work rate, sustained pace and mileage covered in any given game.
On Saturday, he scored two first-half goals — the game’s first with just 11 minutes gone and the equalizer for a 2-2 tie just before halftime — before Dallas scored two late goals and ended United’s 11-game unbeaten streak in MLS and U.S. Open Cup games.
The first was a left-footed volley after teammates Miguel Ibarra and Angelo Rodriguez both kicked at the ball but whiffed.
The second came when United midfielder Collin Martin, at midfield, chipped ahead a 30-yard pass. Finlay, on the run, controlled it on one bounce with his chest and then flicked it with his left foot over the head of out-of-position Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.
Finlay made like teammate Rodriguez on that first goal, positioning himself with two small steps backward as the sequence developed. That allowed him to keep Dallas defender Ryan Hollingshead behind him when the ball came Finlay’s way.
“I’ve seen enough of him doing it,” Finlay said, referring to Rodriguez. “The only thing I can compare it to is a box-out in basketball. You’re just hoping the loose ball drops to you. You just take a chance, trying to put yourself in the best position possible.”
United coach Adrian Heath called Finlay’s performance “terrific” on a night when Heath made nine lineup changes from the game before — owing to his team’s relentless schedule and the Texas summer heat — and was none too pleased about the results.
In Heath’s assessment of Finley, he wasn’t necessarily talking about goal scoring.
“His energy levels were off the charts, his high-speed running,” Heath said. “I thought he was one of the bright spots in the game. He made the right runs. … He’s certainly looking sharper.”
Looking sharper perhaps because he’s more fit 16 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL. He’s also much more his old self, two-thirds through a full season back.
“Goals and assists are an easy way for fans to track success,” Finlay said. “For me, it’s about making an impact on the game. I’m able to do that by getting on the scoresheet, but in other ways, too: by getting behind the defense, by wearing guys down.”
Heath calls Finlay both sharp and driven, maybe even more than usual with newly signed Uruguayan teenager Thomas Chacon on the way and able to play out wide where Finlay thrives.
“He looks hungry,” Heath said about Finlay. “I think he’s picked up the gauntlet of what’s been thrown down because with Chacon coming in, there’s a lot of competition in those wide areas.”
At 29, Finlay says bring on the games and the competition.
“All I’ll say for me is, I pride myself on being fit and available and ready to go,” said Finlay, whose late penalty kick defeated Portland 1-0 early this month. “I think I’ve proven that with my numbers this year and being able to play three games in a week on short rest.”
Finlay says he still has “a long way to go” both in his career and in his post-surgery recovery but also acknowledges how far he has come since surgery.
“I continue to push myself and push my body,’’ said Finlay, whose 2015 breakout season with Columbus put him on MLS’ Best XI and in its All-Star Game. “I do think when I look at the data and analytics, I’m back from a physical standpoint to where I was when I was having some great years in 2014 and 2015.”