Minnesota United have a number of roster decisions to make this off-season, some more difficult than others. If they have made half of a first one with the re-signing of Dayne St. Clair, it seems that another is being made for them.
News: #MNUFC offered a contract to Ethan Finlay, but the Duluth-born winger is expected to test the free-agent market, the @PioneerPress has learned. Finlay, 31, had 3 goals and 3 assists in 1,722 minutes in 2021.— Andy Greder (@andygreder) November 29, 2021
With Ike Opara and Wil Trapp, Ethan Finlay has been one of the most professional Loons of this second generation. A local boy, he has a wonderfully boring public persona and so was as equally honest, insightful, and responsible after a win as he was after a loss. On the field for Minnesota he showed up for work and did his job, every day. And he seems to have a bit of competition in him, which is always fun to see. But if he can be fiery he has rarely been rash or belligerent. He was never the best player on the team or the flashiest, but if he leaves he will be missed.
There will also, though, be a bit of regret in his departure. For much of his time in Minnesota Finlay was a misplaced Loon. When he came to the team he was a player with an incredible work rate and a desire to be direct. Playing in front of Romain Métanire that skill set quickly became redundant. Even if Finlay finishes his attacking runs at the corner of the box while Métanire finishes his runs in the corner, they both want to occupy the same spot out wide. Which is what made his mid-season run of form this year so great: it came from a change of instinct, a thing incredibly hard to do. Pinched for space on the outside he learned to drop his shoulder and head early for the top of the box, clearing the outside for Métanire and trusting that Emanuel Reynoso could find an opening.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, and when Robin Lod returned from international duty and got healthy, Finlay lost time. It is hard not to dream of what this team could have done with Lod up front and Finlay on the right the second half of the season. But it didn’t happen, and so now, with his likely departure, the front office must think again about what it wants this team to be.
For the rest of us, the offseason is a time to dream. As members of Hindsight United, it is a time to think about what was and what could have been and maybe what might be. All as we try to avoid being drawn into the post-season anti-hero glory that is David Ochoa.
Let’s start, then, by assuming, from this last season, a tactical preferred starting 6: Chase Gasper, Bakaye Dibassy, Michael Boxall, and Métanire across the back, with Franco Fragapane and Reynoso in the attacking midfield. Certainly Lod and Wil Trapp were a part of the preferred XI this season, as was Adrien Hunou. But Hunou was regularly subbed out as soon as possible and both Lod and Trapp each played two quite distinct roles; Lod splitting time between right wing and center forward, and Trapp either playing in front of and slightly wide of Ozzie Alonso or centrally and behind Hassani Dotson, Ján Greguš, or Jacori Hayes.
But let’s say we have 6 set. With that six, Minnesota’s offense was weighted to the left and tilted on its axis to the right corner so that a typical Loons build-up would find Gasper, Fragapane, and Reynoso playing tight together on the left half of the field or Métanire threatening vertically deep down the right touch-line.
Putting aside for a moment Gasper’s at times overly adventurous spirit and the fact that Métanire has never had a true target 9 to find from the corner, this is a good beginning. But those are two big things to put aside and the team has had a hard time playing into whatever other possibilities this formation might offer. When out right this season, Lod would often simply disappear, too far from the center of gravity to find his way into the game. Hunou, beginning from the left, often found himself moving away from the play and so unable to get the timing or the spacing right, getting caught off-side or running himself out of the game. For much of the season, when paired with Ozzie, Trapp would, like Lod, disappear on the right side of the field; it was only in the last few games that he was able to find his way into an angle of vision that allowed him to contribute in the build-up. And when he was paired with Dotson, the opposite difficulty arose as Dotson would get drawn up and to the left, clogging the space between Gasper, Fragapane, and Reynoso. There was, in all of this, a few clusters and a lot of unbridgeable space in the middle.
Which gets us back to Finlay. Simply put, his diagonal run created a coherent space for the team to play into.
In addition to vacating the right side of the field for Métanire, the diagonal run shifted the center of gravity to the right, bringing Trapp back into the game when paired with Ozzie, just as it drew Dotson centrally when he was paired with Trapp. It also forced defenses centrally and back, opening more space for Gasper, Fragapane, and Reynoso. And when Lod was up front, the diagonal run cleared the false-9 space centrally for him to run into, receiving the ball with his back to the goal or hooking a run to the left. Or, causing a moment of hesitation in a defense to make the tiniest opening for this.
Are You There Lod?— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) July 25, 2021
It's Me, Reynoso. pic.twitter.com/7gjBclvBWE
At least, maybe. It was a rarely seen movement and so much more speculative fan fiction than descriptive. But that, it seems to me, could be an interesting way for this team to be built and to play.
Letting Finlay go is certainly giving up on something. Maybe it’s giving up on that little drop of the shoulder, a change of direction that changed the space of the game. But we’re not sure yet. All we do know now is that in an off-season that promises another turning of the roster there is another chance for this team to find somewhere to play.