OBETZ, Ohio – When Ethan Finlay began his breakout season in summer 2014, he became a mainstay in Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew SC team almost immediately.
Between July of that year and May 2016, the explosive winger started 61 straight MLS matches for Columbus, racking up 23 goals and 20 assists in two seasons. His success earned him an MLS All-Star selection in 2015, a second new contract in two seasons, and even his first international call-up from Jurgen Klinsmann and the US national team.
But something was off from the beginning of the 2016 season. Finlay started slowly, scoring just one goal and adding two assists by May, when he was left off of Klinsmann’s Copa America Centenario team.
The same month, Finlay was benched in favor of Cedrick Mabwati, marking his first spell out of the Columbus starting lineup 415204833" tabindex="0">in two years. And after working his way from being buried in the depth chart to his starring role, watching from the bench was a shock and a turning point in his season.
“I thought really hard about it for one day,” Finlay said. “But then I thought, ‘Sitting here and being upset or overthinking this isn’t going to get me anywhere.’ I simply needed to go back to where I was two years ago when I was coming off the bench. [I thought about] how I can channel what I was doing and get back into it.”
Finlay realized that he had found himself back where he was comfortable: fighting to force his coaching staff’s hand and earn his way onto the team. It was in that moment that he says he found some clarity.
“I’m a guy that’s always been, in a way, an underdog. I’ve always been told, ‘You’re not going to do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do this,’" said Finlay. "You’re ignored until you play well enough that you catch someone’s eye.
“It’s not an easy thing, going through that transition [to the bench]. But I also have good perspective of where I was and how I’ve grown up. For me, in a way, I probably needed that moment to step back and say, ‘OK, my head is below water now.’ It was above water for so long, but now you’re drowning and you’ve got to pick yourself up.”
Practice has always been Finlay’s strength. In the first days of Berhalter’s tenure, Finlay was the winner of every stamina drill. He fought to be the most fit and the most prepared.
And back on the training field, he decided to do what he could to return to his “underdog” ways.
“I took those two weeks and said, ‘I’m going to have 10 good practices,’” he said. “Every day, I wanted to have good practices. It just went one-two-three and I just took it day-by-day. By the time 415204834" tabindex="0">Thursday and 415204835" tabindex="0">Friday came, I was excited about the game. I felt good internally. It’s weird to say that in that two-week timespan I could re-find what I had, but in a way I knew it.”
His teammates took notice, with Wil Trapp noting how evident Finlay’s work ethic on the practice field was to the rest of the team.
“He handled it extremely well,” Trapp said. “It’s difficult, coming off such a successful season that he had – national team call-ups and all that stuff – and then to have that not carry over to the next season. It’s very difficult.
"But mentally, he kept plugging away. He’s committed to his craft and he always works hard on things he knows he can improve. That was exactly what we saw [in training] during that stretch.”
Berhalter had been looking for a response from one of his most productive players, and he too saw what he was looking for on the practice field.
“It’s a mix of recognizing where he’s at and then [thinking], ‘OK, I’m here. This is a challenge to get out of this.’ I think he handled it extremely well,” Berhalter said. “It’s not easy for players in that situation. He did a really good job of staying positive, working with his teammates, doing extra but not too much. I think, overall, it was good to see how he responded.”
And while he put in work on the field, Finlay also took time to work on his mentality. His disappointment over missing the Copa America combined with the midseason departure of productive striker Kei Kamara left Finlay feeling the pressure.
“The burden almost feels like it shifts to you," Finlay said. "I think I put a lot of pressure on myself and I felt that in a way. That was probably partially the reason I struggled. I was trying to play outside of what I do. I think the biggest thing I’ve got to do is be good at what I do. Do great at the things I’m great at, and the others will come.
"I think I was trying to be too much of a scorer, too much of a dribbler. Those aren’t my best qualities. I can do them, but those open up for me when I’m doing the other things well.”
But even after refocusing, there was still the matter of his scoreless streak. After notching his first goal of the season 415204836" tabindex="0">April 16, Finlay had yet to find his second. And while he and Berhalter both say Finlay's game isn’t dependent on goals, the lack of tallies started to wear on him.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. I absolutely did,” Finlay said. “I had a friend who said, ‘Well, you scored in the Open Cup.’ I looked at her and said, ‘the Open Cup?’ I wasn’t even thinking about that. So it was definitely difficult.”
Finlay bounced back last weekend, notching a brace in a wide open 3-3 draw with New York City FC to score his first goals in four months. Berhalter said he could tell based on the winger’s play that Finlay was “back on track” even if he hadn’t scored a goal.
And while Finlay would love to be back playing for Klinsmann at some point, the veteran player says he’s realized he can’t focus on anything but his own play from here on.
“To get to the national team level, you have to play well here. That’s how you do it,” he said. “[Copa America] didn’t happen, so I had to move forward. Then it’s saying, ‘Let’s not focus on the next national team game and playing well just to get into that. Let’s focus on playing well for the Crew.’
"Once I changed that perspective and literally thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out Ethan,’…I think I stopped doing too much.”