A lot has happened with Minnesota United since the season ended in October.
The Loons remade their midfield by adding three key veterans, drafted two first-round picks and welcomed back important acquisitions Darwin Quintero, Angelo Rodriguez and Romario Ibarra for their first full season in Minnesota.
Almost lost, though, in all the additions and returns is this: Veteran midfielders Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino are on their way back, too.
Each sustained a season-ending knee injury early last season. After months mostly out of mind, both are working their way toward the March 2 season opener.
When fully ready, they’re expected to provide experience in the prime of their careers — each is 28 — and just as importantly, depth to a team that has lacked it in its first two MLS seasons.
Finlay calls his and Molino’s return “an absolute bonus.” Coach Adrian Heath considers it as “two new players” in addition to new midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gergus, right back Romain Metanire and SuperDraft picks Dayne St. Clair and Chase Gasper. United also still wants to add a starting goalkeeper and center back at least.
When asked about Finlay and Molino, Heath said, “There’s another two that people forget. Two of our better players were not available last year. If you know those two, they’re coming back believing they’ll start for us. Both of those two have a belief in their own ability.”
Heath wants to see Molino play underneath Quintero, saying they’re “two guys on very similar wavelengths” and adding “they could give us something we haven’t seen.” He also awaits what he calls Finlay’s “energy, exuberance and positivity.”
“Those are the little things we missed last year,” Heath said.
A nine-year league veteran who tore his ACL in a game at Seattle last April, Finlay calls himself “full go” after Heath described him as itching to play at the end of last season. Finlay said he the team’s medical staff have a good plan these next six weeks to get him ready for the opener. He didn’t participate in Friday’s practice game.
Molino remained in Florida rehabilitating issues with his other knee while the Loons opened training in Blaine this week. He is expected to join them for nearly two weeks of training in Arizona starting Saturday.
When ready, each player will give Heath other options in whatever roles he deems fit.
Heath admits he didn’t have much in the way of options last season when his team allowed 71 goals and won just one road game while missing the playoffs again in its second MLS season.
“We had times last year when you’re thinking we need to change something,” Heath said. “And no disrespect, but we looked along the bench and there wasn’t an awful lot we could do differently. Now with Finlay and Molino coming back — if they come back in the condition we think they’re going to come back with — we have an abundance of talent.”
Beyond experience and depth, Heath expects both players to provide in turn competition on a team that also has Romario Ibarra, Miguel Ibarra and Rasmus Schuller in the midfield as well.
“We’ll have competition and as a coach and being in this game as long as I have, the most important thing is competition,” Heath said. “People think if they lose their spot, they might not get back in. We haven’t had enough of that. I honestly believe if we get the next two or three pieces we’re looking for, we’ll have that all over the field.”
Finlay looks at Atlanta United, which spent big money on its payroll and brought designated player Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco off the bench late in the game during its championship run last season.
“I look at all the great teams right now, look at Atlanta,” Finlay said. “The riches, they had. Villalba, he’d probably start for 20 other teams in the league and he wasn’t starting for a championship team. In a way, that’s a formula. You need depth and guys able to compete with each other and I think we have that this year.”
Metanire set to join club
The Loons on Friday formally announced the signing of defender Romain Metanire from his Stade Reims club in France. Metanire, 28, also is a member of the Madagascar national team.