Minnesota United teammates Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay returned last season from knee surgery each underwent the year before.
Now they’re back, a distinction that United coach Adrian Heath knows well.
Finlay started 22 of 33 games he played last season and scored seven goals after he was sidelined nearly 11 months by a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained in April 2018 at Seattle.
Molino started 11 of 17 games he played last season and scored three times after he had sustained the same injury six weeks before Finlay did.
Born less than two months apart, both now are 29 amid signs in preseason play that each is getting back to the player he was before surgery.
“I went through an ACL myself and I know that first year you get back on a lot of enthusiasm, but you don’t feel quite as sharp,” Heath said. “The one thing that has been abundantly clear to everybody now is Ethan and Kevin are back looking like their old self again.”
Heath has praised both players’ performance in three training games in Florida. United left Friday for Portland, Ore., where it will play three preseason games against MLS opponents New England, Vancouver and the hometown Timbers.
Heath was particularly taken with the instant connection Molino made with newly signed striker Luis Amarilla in a single half they played together in Florida.
He called Amarilla’s connective play with Molino “top-class to watch.”
Molino studied video of Amarilla’s play, which he called “research” that helped create that quick connection even though Amarilla’s native language is Spanish and Molino’s is English.
“Football is one language,” Molino said.
Molino has played the “No. 10” position — an attacking midfielder spot that was star Darwin Quintero’s the past two seasons — throughout this preseason even though Heath said Molino can play all across the front. He might need to if his team succeeds in acquiring Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso from Argentina’s famed Boca Juniors club.
If not, Heath is prepared to go into the season with Molino as his No. 10.
“I don’t know what the future holds in position,” Molino said. “Anywhere the coach wants me to play, I will do the best I can. It doesn’t matter where I play, for the team is most important.”
Molino so far has exhibited the kind of the form that persuaded Heath to bring Molino with him from Orlando City to Minnesota in 2017.
“I’m getting there,” Molino said. “I still have to push and keep doing more. I come in much fitter than last year. Coming off an ACL was difficult. I had some niggling injuries — hamstring, ankle — and missed a couple games. This season, I’m looking forward to playing a lot of games. Look after my body, do the work and be ready to play a lot of games.”
As did Molino, Finlay first worked to rehabilitate his knee, his body. His soccer skills came after that.
“You have these days you’re not feeling great,” Finlay said. “You’ve done a whole bunch of other stuff on your body and you haven’t done a lot of soccer stuff. It took me a little bit longer to get my sharpness from a soccer standpoint.
“As the year went on, I started to get a little better. By mid- to late fall, I was really feeling back. I was feeling a sharpness. My strength and power were all there. Now it’s year nine for me and it’s all about managing your body, managing your workload. Working smarter than harder at time, just doing what I’ve always done.”
Both are in their primes, MLS veterans in a midfield group out front that includes last season’s newcomers Robin Lod and Thomas Chacon.
Heath called Finlay “terrific” so far in preseason training and called Molino, well, the player he has coached since 2011.
“He just gets the game, and players like playing with him,” Heath said. “It’s a big year for him. If we can get him back to where I know he can produce, he’ll be one of the best in the league. Kevin, Ethan, the way those two have come back, it’s like signing two new players.”