BLAINE, Minn. -- Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay revealed in preseason camp in January that he didn’t feel 100 percent healthy and confident until late in the 2019 season.
Fellow Loons midfielder Kevin Molino took it a step further Tuesday, saying he never quite felt like his old self throughout last year.
Despite them playing a combined 50 games last season, these two perspectives show full mental and physical recovery from torn anterior cruciate ligaments can take much longer than the standard recovery estimate of 8 to 12 months.
Molino tore his ACL and menisci in March 2018, while Finlay injured his ACL a month later. Both missed the rest of that season before slowly working their back in 2019.
In the 2020 season opener Sunday, both Finlay and Molino produced at high levels in the Loons’ 3-1 road victory over the Portland Timbers. Molino scored two goals, while Finlay was a playmaker on all three goals and was credited with two assists, including Luis Amarilla’s winner in the 76th minute.
“It’s like having two new players in (Kevin) and Ethan this year,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “They’ve both come back like that. If we can continue to get (those) type of performances out of them, it’s going to be a huge boost for us.”
The MLS team of the week honorees will take that start into Saturday night’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Earthquakes Stadium.
Molino’s recovery a year ago was complicated by nagging hamstring injuries, so he committed more offseason workouts with his personal trainer in his native Trinidad. That includes strengthening both knees; he tore the ACL in his other knee in 2015.
“It was in and out,” Molino said of his availability last year. “Now, finally I have a whole preseason to prepare and get fit, and I hope for the best this season.”
Heath said it can be difficult to gauge where a player truly is in his recovery when he has been cleared by the medical staff to contribute and training sessions have gone well.
“It’s one of them things the player feels. You can’t feel it for them,” Heath said.
Molino and Finlay’s runs against the Timbers proved they are healthy and can climb back to their spots among MLS’s best players. After scoring just three goals in 910 minutes last season, Molino already has two goals in 90 minutes this year. He said he wants double-digit goals in 2020.
With a tactical approach to hit the Timbers on the counterattack, all three Loons goals in Portland came in this way.
Ike Opara’s long pass and Finlay’s run down the right flank created the first goal. Finlay’s cross to Robin Lod was broken up by Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark, but Molino’s hustle allowed him to clean it up and score.
“Being in the right place at the right time,” Molino said. “Once you work hard, sometimes the ball jumps at your feet and you get a chance to score.”
Finlay and Molino combined for a third goal. Trailing 2-1, the Timbers pushed players forward looking for an equalizer, but Loons goalkeeper Tyler Miller controlled the ball and sent a booming pass to Amarilla and then Finlay.
Finlay had three players converge on him inside the Timbers’ 18-yard box, so he flicked it back over his head to Molino, who sliced the volley into the back of the net.
“I would like to say I have eyes in the back of my head and knew Kevin was for sure there,” Finlay said. “But, no, it’s one of those situations where you are trying to anticipate where the next guy is going to be, and that was really the only spot or opportunity that that ball could go. He had a lot of work to do still there.”
Finlay and Molino have put in the work to get to this spot, and the rewards have started flowing.