Ethan Finlay’s soccer story is a quintessentially American one.
It’s about potential shortcomings in the player development system, blooming a bit late and the myriad twists of fate that shape the gradual rise of so many pros. It’s about being a big man on campus and an unheralded contributor to a small-market MLS club. It’s about the open road, ambition and family. But most of all, Finlay’s story is about movement. His relentless desire to pursue opportunity and cover ground, and the speed at which he does it, has defined his career. And now, it’s helped the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup semifinals for the first time in seven years.
“Every athlete has a story,” Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Some, you knew they were going to be great from the time they were three. Others, there’s always a journey that you take … [Finlay is] extremely competitive and an extremely hard worker. Those are good qualities if you want to become a professional, and he has both. There’s no doubt he can take adversity and keep going.”
Finlay, now 25 and an MLS All-Star, wanted to be a professional. He wanted it early and he wanted it bad. In fact, when his parents opted to move from North Carolina to central Wisconsin, Finlay told them they were “killing his soccer career.” His father, Brent, was offered a job running the YMCA in Marshfield, Wisconsin, a city of fewer than 20,000 people close to his mother Julie’s family and about halfway between Green Bay and Minneapolis. Ethan imagined plenty of hockey (his dad’s sport) and football in Marshfield, but not much soccer. He was 12 years old, and he was right.
So his parents hit the road. First to Madison, about 140 miles away from Marshfield, then to Neenah and finally, starting when Finlay was 15, all the way to Milwaukee. His best shot at decent competition and exposure was with FC Milwaukee, a youth club based a solid three-hour drive to the southeast. So every Tuesday and Thursday, Finlay would leave school at around 2 p.m., get in the car with his mom or (usually) dad, drive to Milwaukee, train and then make the return trip. Sometimes he’d practice with multiple teams, doubling up on his sessions, just to make the most of his journey. He’d try to get some homework done in the car. But for the most part, the road trips were filled with more conversation than most teenagers have with their fathers and, in the background, a 50-song collection of Beatles hits. Dinner was eaten on the fly, and Finlay typically would get to bed well after midnight.
“I loved it. I loved that time in the car. I enjoyed it so much,” Finlay told SI.com. “We weren’t thinking twice about [the commitment]. This is what we had to do. This is what I wanted to do and my parents were giving me the tools to do it.”
He’d train locally on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when high school soccer wasn’t in season and then hit the road again for FC Milwaukee matches on the weekends. During the summer, he’d stay overnight with teammates, sometimes for days at a time, to give his parents a bit of a break. He had three siblings who needed a bit of attention as well. Finlay’s squad won a pair of U.S. Youth Soccer regional titles, and the sacrifice and spotlight started to pay off. He accepted a scholarship from Creighton.
“It wasn’t until those FC Milwaukee years that I really believed I could do something in this sport beyond club soccer. Obviously the pros were there, but I didn’t really know much about MLS at the time,’” said Finlay, who lived nearly 300 miles from the closest MLS club.
“The probability of being a professional player in any sport is crazy. I don’t think there would’ve been any disappointment if I’d not become a pro soccer player,” he added.
His father, who played hockey in college, developed a vested interest in Ethan’s progress and shared in his son’s ups and downs.
“There were times when I had a bad day, it was probably frustrating for him, too. He’s spending six hours driving and he wants me to get everything out of it,” Finlay said. “My dad and I would go back and forth in the car. I would never do that with my mother. There were moments I think we were a little mad at each other and so many times we’d talk about my development, about life. I definitely learned a lot about manhood and just about what it’s going to be about—what we were doing this for. That was important. He pushed me, and there’s a fine line about knowing when someone needs to be pushed and forcing them to do something. He did a really good job of getting the best out of me. He was my Dad, but he was my greatest motivator.”
Finlay starred at Creighton and scored 43 goals in 79 games. He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference player of the year and the runner-up for the 2011 MAC Hermann Trophy—college soccer’s Heisman. He then shined at the 2012 MLS combine and was the 10th player selected in that January’s draft. Finlay wouldn’t have to travel that far this time—he’d stay in the Midwest with the Crew—but he still had a long way to go. Across his first two MLS campaigns, he started just six games and failed to notch a single goal or assist.
“He was raw,” said Berhalter, who replaced Robert Warzycha on the Columbus bench prior to the 2014 season. “We certainly saw something in him, but he was raw. It was a lot of energy. Sometimes misguided energy, in terms of his timing. The timing wasn’t there yet, and we were still defining our system.”
Ultimately, Finlay’s energy and movement helped Berhalter define, and then refine, his system. By June 2014, Finlay was a regular starter on the right flank of the Crew’s 4-2-3-1 alignment.
“It’s not something we saw immediately, to be honest,” Berhalter said. “In the beginning of the year last year, we were too possession oriented. We didn’t threaten the [opponent’s] back line enough. That’s where Ethan comes in. He’s a guy that keeps getting behind the back line. Then you have a striker and winger who are constantly getting behind, and then it makes more space in the midfield and gives you an opportunity to make more changes. That’s him defining that position.”
Berhalter continued, “The explosiveness was there. The power was there. But it just took time to get him on the same page with his movements, and [he] started being able to repeat these movements time and again … Things started to crystallize.”
Finlay’s pace and capacity to deliver an inch-perfect cross were established and lethal, and he improved on his ability to cut inside and shoot with his left foot. He was relentless, showing a willingness to follow a play to its conclusion, battle in the penalty area or take on defenders one-on-one. Finlay finished the 2014 season alongside Federico Higuaín as the Crew's top scorer with 11 goals and seven assists. This season, his second under Berhalter, Finlay was even better. Thirteen years after he thought his soccer career was derailed, Finlay was one of only four MLS players to tally double-digit goals and assists during the regular season (12 and 13). Then on Nov. 8, he scored the critical 77th minute goal that sent a back-and-forth Eastern Conference semifinal against the Montreal Impact into overtime. There, Kamara clinched the two-game series with a header at the right post. Columbus (16-12-8) will open the Eastern Conference final against the visiting New York Red Bulls (20-10-6) on Sunday afternoon.
“Wingers and outside backs are a huge part of this system,” Finlay said. “It’s a huge part of our success—how we play. And I think they started to see that this kid, he’s got some pace, and he’s got some pretty good movement … I’m not the fastest guy in the league, but my movement can make me extremely elusive. So we started working on counter movements with [assistant coach] Josh Wolff. Checking back, getting in behind, checking away and getting it at my feet, playing a one-two and getting in behind guys. The way I beat guys is just with consistent, constant movement and change of pace. That’s what Gregg has emphasized and that’s what our whole system is about.”
Columbus spreads the field, uses width and diagonal balls and the incisive flank play of Finlay and Justin Meram to devastating effect. The Crew attempted a MLS-high 675 crosses from open play this year, 115 more than the second-ranked team, and enjoyed the league’s second-highest completion rate. Only the Red Bulls scored more goals.
Scoring and winning gets you noticed, and the calls for Jurgen Klinsmann to invite Finlay to join the U.S. national team are louder than ever. It’s worth noting that 10 players have reached double-digit goals and assists in one of the past two seasons, and Finlay is the only one who’s never been capped. In fact, he’s never represented his country at any level.
“He definitely deserves the chance. He has the quality and now it’s up to him, when he’s on that stage, how he adapts and performs,” said Berhalter, who was on the 2002 and 2006 U.S. World Cup squads.
Finlay said he was hoping for a call-up, but that he’d let his play for the Crew do the talking in the meantime. He badly wants that invite from Klinsmann. But he also knows he can’t count on it. He can’t and won’t rest. Finlay is too competitive—“It’s not uncommon to see him jawing with a teammate, getting the team riled up,” Berhalter said—and has come too far to slow down. Finlay knows he beat the odds and he knows what it took. So he knows he can do it again.
“I pinch myself all the time. I’m extremely blessed, but I also worked very hard and fought through many challenges,” he said. “I looked like I could’ve been a bust. And to have the success I’ve been having has been tremendous for me and my family and it says a lot about where I came from and, hopefully, where I can go.”