Finlay enjoying breakout third season in Black & Gold

For an attacking player, the first goal is always the hardest one to come by.

Crew winger Ethan Finlay can attest to that, going his first two-plus seasons -- 40 matches -- without finding the net following a four-year career Creighton University that saw him score 43 goals as a Bluejay.

But since his shot deflected off then-Timbers defender Futty Danso and into the net in a wild 3-3 draw at Portland on May 17, Finlay has become one of the Crew's most potent scoring threats, scoring six goals and assisting on four more over his last 13 matches.

"You get a break or two, to be honest," Finlay said. "It was a little bit of luck with the first one, but it opens the floodgates. That's kind of what's happened for me this year."

The 24-year-old winger continued: "I had opportunities my first two years, but I was a little unfortunate. I think now that I've gotten consistent playing time, starting multiple games -- 10 out of 12 matches now -- it's great. The more you're in the game and the more you're able to get used to your players, the easier it is."

The frustration of a two-year scoring drought never kept Finlay down as he always provided a spark off the bench as a substitute. However, now the midfielder is feeling more confident with the monkey off his back.

"It was frustrating," he admitted. "You come from scoring 40-plus goals in college and then you go on a drought for two years, but once you get that first one you get that confidence. You know you can do it. For me, that's what it was. I knew I could do it before, but it validates it on the big stage. Now, you can play a little more free. 

"You take more chances and those chances turn into more goals, assists and opportunities."

Though he wasn't a regular starter to begin 2014, Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter notes that Finlay has made the most improvement over the course of the season. 

"He's a guy that we've seen the most improvement from," Berhalter said of Finlay. "I think for him it was about him getting comfortable with our system and what his movements should be. Once he got comfortable with that, you can see he has the ability. What he has, he can sprint at high intensity all game. You see it towards the end of the game and in plays where he's just accelerating by guys because of that ability to do that."

Though his speed is Finlay's biggest asset on the field, Berhalter points out that the winger's ability to slow things down mentally in the midst of all the action has been crucial to Finlay's development.

"For him it was about slowing down in the moment that he gets those opportunities," Berhalter said. "He's been doing that, really slowing it down and concentrating on the contact. He's been doing a great job." 

In addition to Berhalter's new system for the Crew, Finlay attributes some of the success he's seen this season to Berhalter's player-first management style and working with the entire Crew technical staff.

"[Berhalter] has had a big impact," Finlay explained. "I think all the coaches have. Getting to work with [Assistant Coach] Josh Wolff has been great for me with my movement. He was one of the best at it. The formation and the style we play with Gregg has been good for me. I've had a lot of success and I think a lot our wide guys have had success if you look at the numbers.

He added: "[Berhalter] is incredible at managing players, from what I've seen in his first eight months here. Everyone is different, everyone has a different personality, everyone reacts differently and Gregg has done a fantastic job to maximize what he can get out of each player. You see that top-to-bottom. You see guys who've come in like myself who weren't starting at the beginning of the season, but stayed in it. He does a great job. He was a player himself, so I think he understands. He's been in these situations. He's been a starter, he's also been the guy who's probably had to fight for a spot. When you have a coach who knows that, it can help a player get through those moments and push through."

Finlay admits that with the success comes a more prominent focus on opposing teams' scouting reports. But the emergence of fellow winger Justin Meram and Tony Tchani becoming a force in midfield to go along with Federico Higuaín's playmaking ability have benefited Finlay and the Black & Gold.

"They obviously have to be aware of me moving behind, and my speed," said Finlay. "But there's still Pipa who can find a long ball and other guys like Justin Meram, Ben Speas coming on. We're starting to get weapons and when you have more than guy that is able to finish and make plays, where I think in the past we didn't quite have that. We were relying a lot on Pipa to create."

He continued: "We've got guys creating now: Justin with his pass, Tony is getting into the attack. When you have guys that can attack and make passes, along with Pipa and his vision, you become very dangerous. When they start to focus on one guy, we can punish them someplace else."

While Finlay has always been vocal on the field, his teammates now look to him as an attacking threat. Berhalter feels Finlay is relishing the new pressure to keep up his scoring rate.

"I think he's a guy that the team is starting to look to to make plays," Berhalter said. "He's dealing well with that responsibility and he's realizing that he's got to show up in games and make plays."

SYNC TO YOUR CALENDAR: Easily and automatically sync Columbus Crew's 2020 regular-season schedule to your phone!