ST. PAUL — When Ethan Finlay was traded to Minnesota United in August 2017, he saw it as an opportunity to be part of something special.
The Loons were an expansion team, and Finlay had ties to the area, having been born in Duluth and living in Superior until he was 5.
“I jumped on the idea of coming here to be part of a team that was building something, kind of from the ground up,” Finlay said. “It’s not an easy thing, but I think everyone wants to be part of something that kind of starts at the very beginning.”
The latest chapter in United’s rise came Sunday in a 1-0 victory over Portland, when Finlay blasted home the game-winner on a penalty kick in stoppage time before a raucous sellout crowd of 19,726 at the new Allianz Field.
The penalty kick came after the video assistant referee (VAR) determined Timbers defender Larry Mabiala hit a United corner kick with his arm out.
“You know, it always feels good when you know the guys behind you are confident with you taking the PK,” Finlay said. “Right away, when I went over during the VAR decision, (coach) Adrian (Heath) just said, ‘You’re taking it.’ Just those little things like that, that you know you have people around you that believe in you in that moment. And, obviously, I believe in myself. It’s a big three points for this group.”
With the win, the Loons (11-7-5) own a 10-game unbeaten streak in all competitions while snapping the Timbers (9-8-4) unbeaten run at seven. The same teams play Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in St. Paul.
Twin Ports to North Carolina
Finlay, who turns 29 on Tuesday, was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth to Brent Finlay and Julie Finlay.
Finlay’s father is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, but the forward ended up in the Upper Midwest to play hockey at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Brent Finlay only wound up playing a year but graduated from North Dakota and eventually became involved in the YMCA. He later was sports director for the Superior Y, while Julie, a native of Cable, Wis., managed the Superior Hardee’s.
“My older brother and sister give me a hard time; well, you weren’t born in Wisconsin, you must be a Vikings fan. You’re Duluth, right? You’re a Minnesota guy, right?” Ethan Finlay said laughing. “So they used to tease me when I was a kid.”
(For the record, Finlay is a Packers fan).
The family moved to North Carolina for Brent’s work and Ethan, only 5, was not happy about it.
“My dad was a hockey player and I was a hockey player,” Finlay said. “I was skating at 5 years old and then all of the sudden, I remember, we go to North Carolina and there’s no ice anywhere. Let’s get some ice. So soccer became the next sport for me.”
By the time the family moved back to the Midwest, to Marshfield, Wis., when he was 13, he had already got the “soccer bug.”
Ethan graduated high school from Marshfield in 2008 before becoming one of the top scorers all-time at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., leading the Bluejays to the 2011 NCAA Final Four. He finished second in voting for college soccer player of the year in 2012 and was the first player ever from Wisconsin to be a finalist for the award.
The Finlay family often made return visits to the Twin Ports, and Ethan has fond memories of visiting Curt Christianson, a beloved staple at the Superior Y, known for his basketball trick shots, encyclopedic knowledge of local sports and his genteel manner. Christianson passed away on New Year's Day at age 92.
“My time up there was very short, I don’t remember a ton of it, but we always used to go back because my dad had a lot of friends there through the YMCA, and my mom did, too,” Finlay said. “I’ll always remember those visits with Curt.”
A real pro
Finlay was drafted by the Columbus Crew in the first round, No. 10 overall, in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. His breakout year occurred in 2015, when he finished with 10 goals and 13 assists, and in 2016 he played with the U.S. men’s national team, recording an assist on the game-winning goal in a win over Canada.
Finlay, who is featured on the cover of the summer issue of Minnesota Score, an all-sports magazine, has four goals and three assists in 23 games for United this season. It’s remarkable he doesn’t have more to show for it, given the display he put on Saturday. He's the real deal, showing off fancy footwork and tremendous speed to boot, but so many great attempts often wind up as near misses, which is the nature of the sport.
“The final product was just lacking a little bit,” Finlay said. “There were opportunities where we could have been a little cleaner, where we just weren’t connecting the final pass or hit at the right moment. That does get a little bit frustrating, but the effort was there. I felt the effort was fantastic.”
Finlay’s latest goal, at least temporarily, moved the Loons into a tie for second in the Western Conference going into Seattle’s Sunday night match. Their 38 points are a United regular-season record, and 11 games remain on the regular-season schedule.
This is exactly what Finlay had envisioned when he joined the team in 2017.
“A new stadium, an organization that was really looking to evolve their roster and the ideas that they had were, I thought positive and good,” Finlay recalled. “I liked the direction and wanted to be part of it.”
Finlay sure is part of it.
Sunday’s atmosphere at Allianz Field was electric, and if Mount Allianz was ever dormant, it certainly erupted when Finlay scorched his penalty kick past Portland goalie Steve Clark, his former Columbus teammate.
Clark guessed right that Finlay was going to kick it toward the left post, but Finlay simply put too much heat on it and the ball bounced off Clark’s outstretched hands.
The Loons put out a very good product, great entertainment, with drums and chanting throughout in a multicultural festival of sight and sound and sweat on a muggy afternoon in the high 80s, and Finlay said it all starts with the fans. After the Loons locked hands and raced toward the “Wonderwall” cheering section at Allianz Field, Finlay gave his own tribute to the fans as has become his custom, running around the entire stadium and raising his arms in a salute, section by section.
“The atmosphere they’ve created down here is great, and that’s just my way to go and thank people,” Finlay said. “It’s sold out every game, and I just want to thank them, even all those people sitting up in the nose-bleed seats, or maybe they’re only half nose bleed, because there’s not a bad seat in the house, right? The atmosphere here … it’s just something really special.”
Something special, indeed.