Ethan Finlay is already in his fourth season with Minnesota United. But he hasn't forgotten his first team.
Especially since he just played the Columbus Crew SC on Tuesday.
The winger spent the first six years of his professional career in Columbus, the team United defeated 1-1 in regulation, then 5-3 on penalty kicks in the knockout round of the MLS is Back tournament. A trade halfway through 2017 took the Duluth native back to his home state. But returning home hasn't dampened his pursuit of improvement.
"You can never, ever ask him for any more," United coach Adrian Heath said. "He gives you everything he's got every single day. Great trainer. Great professional. Wants to work. Wants to get better. Wants to learn, ask questions."
Finlay had a breakout season in 2015, scoring 12 goals to earn MLS All-Star and Best XI selections. But he hasn't discovered that peak since, partly because he tore his right ACL in 2018, and it took until late into 2019 for him to feel fully recovered.
"After that, you're just really trying to find your form and understanding … what you're good at," Finlay said. "And for me, it's always been about getting behind defenses. Running. Countless, countless hours of spending time on working on my positioning and how that positioning impacts defenders. And where is the space, is it in front or is it behind me?"
Yet he makes it look easy on the field. In the Loons' final group stage match last Friday, he scored twice in a 2-2 draw with the Colorado Rapids. He toe-flick redirected a free kick at the near post before offering a one-touch finish off right back Romain Metanire's back pass.
"I've tried to become a little bit more comfortable in the pockets, and some of the soft pockets in front of the center back and the outside backs, being able to either turn in those pockets or to get in touch and play one-two and try to move off of that," Finlay said, adding playing with Metanire is similar to the connection he had at Columbus with Harrison Afful. "… Really good one-v-one, attacking-minded outside back. And so using some of the great tools and assets that [Metanire] has, his passing capabilities, it's really opened me up, I think, over the last 18 months of playing with Romain on that side."
Finlay said he will not only try to create scoring opportunities for his teammates but also be in the right spaces by making "dynamic, slashing" runs so they can feed him. And while those two goals, plus two previous assists, are Finlay's only score-sheet appearances in this interrupted season so far, Heath doesn't think they will be the last.
"I was so pleased for him to get the couple of goals the other night, because I think his work rate and his endeavor and his determination to get in them spots is incredible," Heath said. "So it was just reward for what he's been putting in. … You're looking to get a complete wide player because he can defend, he can get forward, he can beat people, he puts balls in the box. And if he now started to get, which I think he can, between seven and 12 goals a season, then he'd be a huge player for any team."
• The Loons played without playmaker Kevin Molino. He left the team's second group stage match at halftime because of a hamstring injury, entirely sitting out the final group contest last week. Heath said Molino returned to training before the match, but the midfielder was only a substitute option from the bench.
• Also on the bench was center back Brent Kallman. It was his first reappearance with the team since a 10-game suspension dating back to late last season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
• Jacori Hayes made his United debut as a second-half substitute for Hassani Dotson.
• Metanire limped off with an apparent injury in the 72nd minute, with Marlon Hairston replacing him.