ST. PAUL, Minn. — On Aug. 9, 2017, Ethan Finlay found himself traded to Minnesota United FC from the Columbus Crew — the only professional team for which he’d played. Saturday at Allianz Field, Finlay found himself unmarked at the back post to tap in the game-winning goal against his former team.
Finlay said he had seen the media coverage this week about facing Columbus for the first time since since he was traded. His teammates noticed as well, and captain Osvaldo Alonso asked Finlay to speak in the huddle just before kickoff.
“So I think 19,000 people recognized that tonight, and obviously Ozzie asked if I’d speak before the game to the guys,” Finlay said. “I said, ‘You know there’s been a lot of stories, obviously, about my old team and whatnot. But this is about us. This is about this group. And we’re a family.’ And that was the whole thing — my whole message was we are a family.”
On whether his first goal since returning from a torn ACL was extra special since it handed a 1-0 defeat to the team that traded him away, Finlay again brought the focus back to his current club.
“If I score in a game like this and we lose or we draw, it’ll feel very different. It really does,” Finlay said. “So to be able to score and be able to take the three points away, as a team, is what is most important and what means, honestly, the most.”
Collected and thoughtful during his postgame interview, Finlay had already let his emotions loose in the hallway between the field and locker room.
“WOOO — F**K YEAH.”
Ethan Finlay in the tunnel after the game. #MNUFC
— E Pluribus Loonum (@EPluribusLoonum) May 19, 2019
With the victory, Minnesota (5-4-3, 18 points) remained undefeated at Allianz Field. For Columbus (5-8-1, 16 points), it was the Crews’ seventh loss in eight games. And on the night, the recent trajectory of both teams was maintained by a moment built on a glance.
In the 70th minute, MNUFC centerback Brent Kallman remained alert as his team kept possession following a corner kick.
“The ball got recycled out to Romain [Métanire] at a really nice angle. I just pulled off to the back post, and I know he saw me. [We] kind of made eye contact as the ball was coming to him. So I made a break for it,” Kallman said. “The ball came in, I had to sell out to kind of get there and I was just trying to put it back where it came from. I can’t honestly say I was trying to pass it. I was trying to probably put it in the back post. I was just trying to contort my body, put it back where it came from. And I was able to, and Ethan was there.”
Finlay’s goal was the Loons’ third in their last four games at Allianz Field. And while Minnesota’s attack has been quiet as of late, it’s defense has kept opponents quiet as well, conceding just once over that same period.
“I’ll settle for it if it’s three points every week,” MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath said. “As I said a few weeks ago, we started the season, there’s only six teams scored more goals in the league. That might have changed. It’s been the last three or four weeks that we haven’t taken chances we’ve had. Before today I can think of the last three or four games where we’ve had two or three clear-cut opportunities. And tonight, we’ve created two or three good chances as well. So, you know, we’ve gotta start taking a bit more of the percentage of them. But if we do, we’re going to be okay.”
Heath was quick to praise his back four, noting Métanire’s dynamism a day after his wife had given birth, the centerback pairing of Kallman and Michael Boxall and the play of Miguel Ibarra, who’d been deputized to play leftback. First-choice centerback Ike Opara wasn’t fully fit, having sustained a knock to his knee in training this week, and was given the night off. And Ibarra was picked to start over Eric Miller in an attempt to stretch the left side of the field and put pressure on the Crew should they attempt to keep their defense keyed on Métanire down the opposite flank.
Both Boxall and Kallman were aware of the danger posed by an attack featuring David Accam, Federico Higuaín and, particularly, center forward Gyasi Zardes.
“Those are usually the tricky ones,” Boxall said of Zardes. “When you’re paying attention to the ball, he makes good runs off it. So it’s just a lot of communication and always keeping your head on a swivel to see where he is because in the 18-yard-box he’s dangerous. We always communicated where he was and Brent was shouting nonstop.”
“He’s just pulling off back shoulders constantly,” added Kallman. “They have good guys that get [into] pockets in front, so just trying not to fall asleep. All it takes is one — [Zardes] is pulling off your back shoulder, they get the timing right and he’s in and he scores. So just trying to have good positions, talk, and pass him onto each other as he moves.”
The end result of that communication and team effort on defense was a game in which Minnesota did not concede a single shot on target — a first for MNUFC since joining MLS. And where the Loons produced middling results from higher-scoring games over the past two seasons, they find themselves in fifth place in the Western Conference, grinding out low-scoring wins and draws as of recent.
“As I said, in a few weeks time we’ll have played seven [at home] and seven [away] — let’s have a look where we are then,” Heath said. “Chances are, we’re going to be above the red line. Will we settle for that a third of the way through the season? Probably. Although listening to some people, maybe not.”