Anyone who has watched Columbus Crew SC play this season has seen No. 13 flash down the right wing. It’s no secret Ethan Finlay is having a successful season, but the speedy midfielder’s contributions on offense are game-changing for the Black & Gold this year.
With Finlay’s match-winning goal in Toronto last weekend, he joined the Reds' Sebastian Giovinco and Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber in an elite club. They are the only three players in Major League Soccer to reach double digits in both goals and assists this season.
Finlay currently boasts 10 goals and 13 assists. When asked which of the two is more enjoyable, he says, “they’re both great.”
Having one of the League’s leading goal-scorers in Kei Kamara as the winger’s target may have altered his game this year, but Finlay says he was up for it.
“It’s been great, having a guy like Kei. It’s opened up a lot of different things—not only for me, but for other guys up front. The assists are great, it’s always nice to be able to have great stats; but even more so, just playing with some of these great players, and our combinations have been a lot of fun.”
Finlay not only leads his team in total assists, his four game-winning deliveries are also a Crew SC high this season. After distributing the Black & Gold's very first helper of the season in their 2-0 win over Toronto on March 14, Finlay went on a run assisting nine more over the next 15 matches. He's still not satisfied, though.
“I was pretty hot on them earlier in the year and personally, as I got going with the assists, I had a little bit higher goal for myself,” he says. “I’ve maybe fallen a little bit short, still one game to go, but I didn’t think I’d actually get back to double-digit goals, just having Kei as a huge presence in there [the box].”
After scoring 11 goals last year, Finlay still has one regular-season match remaining to tie or beat his personal record. One more assist, and he would double his 2014 total of seven.
Whether he’s the one finding the back of the net, or setting up the guy next to him, Finlay attributes his success to his teammates.
“They’re extremely important to our success, and we’re all important to each other’s success,” he says. “When one guy’s out, it's tough on us and we do have players that definitely can pick it up. But our continuity’s been second to none in the League this year.”
As opponents may be trying to figure out Finlay, his ability to adapt has been his greatest strength this season, the winger says.
“Things have changed with our team from last year. [...] Last year, maybe I was a surprise to teams, and this year I wasn’t,” he explains. “So, it's being able to say ‘OK, this isn’t working. It worked last year, but it’s not working now,’ and being able to adapt my game around what the opponents are doing. And we’ve done that well as a team.”
Finlay cites the 2-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls on July 4, where he scored both goals, as an example.
“We started going long ball—something we don’t usually do,” he says. “Making that adjustment, I was able to get a goal off a Kei flick—something we probably never thought we would’ve scored on earlier in the year, or even thought about as a plan. But as a group, I think we’ve been able to adapt really well.”
Finlay’s willingness to adjust has allowed him to flourish. In his fourth season with Columbus, he has scored, assisted -- and in some cases done both -- in more than half of Crew SC’s matches (18 of 33). He credits Crew SC's technical staff for his consistent performances at a high level.
“I’m really happy and I’m very thankful for the coaching staff and for the medical staff that we have here. It really starts with those guys,” he says. “They set the precedent and I’ve been blessed to have guys like Gregg [Berhalter] and Josh [Wolff], who played at a very high level, who, in a way, adjusted their system two years ago to some of my strengths. And I’ve been able to flourish under it, as well as other players have, so it starts with them.”
Not only has Crew SC’s technical staff shaped a system around its players’ strengths, it continues to corral players, whose playing styles fit this developing system, from all over the world.
One of those players to come to Columbus, quickly adapt and flourish in the “Berhalter System” is Ghanaian defender, Harrison Afful. With Afful and Finlay working together on the right wing, their speed, awareness and distribution are enough to distress any opponent.
“Teams are starting to go with me, and his runs are really good,” Finlay says. “They’re not just runs where he’s getting out wide and crossing it. He’s getting the ball in the box and being able to pick a player out, and in some cases, test the goalkeeper.”
Finlay's value to the club is apparent as the Black & Gold have yet to lose this season when he scores or assists. With a Finlay goal, Columbus is 6-0-2; when Finlay assists, Crew SC is 6-0-7.
“Those are cool stats to me,” he says. “It’s all about winning to me. So if I can help the team win games, and if I’m scoring or assisting we’re winning games, that’s extremely important. So hopefully we can keep that streak going and I hope and plan to have a goal, or at least assist, on Sunday [against D.C. United].”
As Finlay continues his contributions to the club’s success, he is leaving his mark in Columbus’ history books. With his ninth goal this season at D.C. on September 19, he became just the seventh Crew SC player all-time to reach at least 20 goals and 20 assists.
“I didn’t know until I’d done it,” he says. “It’s a great group of guys, and any time you can be involved in a grouping like that, it’s rewarding and humbling.”
Fittingly, that goal against D.C. United is Finlay’s favorite of 2015 so far.
“I’m not even bringing it up because we’re playing them, but I really liked my D.C. goal,” he says. “That’s not a goal I score. That’s just me kind of being in a good position, taking a chance. I also like that Tyson [Wahl] is in that play. That’s just a different goal. That’s a goal that I probably don’t see myself scoring again, but I felt like a big man playing with my back to goal there for a split second.”
Big man, speedy winger or offensive weapon, Ethan Finlay gets the job done. Don’t miss your chance to see him and the rest of the good guys in Black & Gold in their final regular-season match on Sunday. Crew SC hosts D.C. United in a battle for second place in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the semis. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. ET at MAPFRE Stadium. Get your tickets here.