When we talk about sports’ greatest moments, we talk about them like they’re frozen in amber. A championship, a stoppage time goal, The Hand of God, The Flu Game, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: we talk about these moments as indelible, timeless. But for all the heroics that athletes give us, the permanence of these moments is built on bodies just as frail as ours.
Despite advances in medical science, we’re still not very sure exactly how the potential for injury relates to training and preparation. Athletes in top physical condition are sidelined weekly and meanwhile: Keith Richards. At any moment, an athlete could be betrayed by their own body, as two of Minnesota United’s key players, Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay, found out early this season.
It was just the second game of the year and Molino was facing his old team Orlando City SC in Orlando. MNUFC had suffered a tough 3-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in their season opener despite a brace from Molino and he looked aggressive again early. He assisted Finlay’s goal in the 12th minute, but then went down after a knock to the knee in the 36th minute. He returned to action but came out for good in the 49th. He left the field hoping against hope that it wasn’t the same kind of injury that had stopped his season before it even began in 2015.
“I always wanted to play against Orlando, to feel the emotions and play against them,” he said. “They are a club that is really close to my heart. I did not want to come off the field. I did not know until the next morning when I woke up and felt the same set of pain that reminded me of the first time I tore my ACL. It was tough — I cried a little bit in the airport.”
As the adrenaline from the game seeped out, the realization that he would again be watching from the sidelines, this time after two strong performances for a team looking to grow in its second season, seeped in. It was a little over a month later with the Loons still adjusting to Molino’s absence and only two games into Darwin Quintero’s MLS career that the team lost Finlay to an ACL tear.
After colliding with the Seattle Sounders’ Alex Roldan, his knee felt “different.” Trainer Stacey Hardin came out to administer the Lachman test and diagnose the extent of the injury, but Finlay wanted no part of leaving his team in the lurch.
“I found out a lot about adrenaline and about guarding,” he said, referencing the medical phenomenon of surrounding muscles spasming to minimize agitation caused by injury. “We were down in that game and we were kind of getting pummeled. The last thing you want to do is come out in a game. The knee felt stable in the moment and I played another seven minutes.”
At halftime, the knee stiffened up and a scan confirmed it: Finlay would be joining Molino on the IR for the rest of the season. The physical toll of such an injury is obvious — within a week, they could be seen at training in Blaine, bulky supports wrapped around their legs, doing their best on crutches. And the loss to the club was massive as well. Here were two of the team’s best players entering the season gone before it had even really begun. But the biggest hurdle for the players themselves was mental. For players like Molino and Finlay, both 28, the game has been at the heart of who they are for well over a decade.
“This has been our lives, and soccer is all you know,” said Finlay. “The recovery is daunting. After you come to the realization that you have torn your ACL, you are most likely out for the season and you have six to eight months ahead of you, you don’t quite realize how long that time is away from the game until you start to get involved in it. You realize: I’m day one and I’ve got 280 ahead of me.”
“That is the hardest moment, to come to terms with an injury,” said Molino. “For me, football is sort of therapy. You are in your happy place, in your happy zone, you’re seeing your friends and challenging every day. To have that taken away from you is a depression and sometimes it can hurt you. When you don’t have that, it is like taking food away from you for a week.”
It might be a cliché, but the game we all watch on Saturday is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the life of a professional soccer player. We see what happens in those 90 minutes but we don’t see the way training together day in and day out can stitch a team together.
“The best teams are always those teams that off the field, on the field are really together,” said Finlay. “They really enjoy that kind of stuff. I miss that. That is the happiness of our job. People say, ‘Oh, you do a job for the paycheck,’ but we love this game and it gives us so much joy.”
“And especially, footballers have a routine,” Molino added. “We wake up in the morning, prepare, say a prayer, brush your teeth, whatever. Drive to training and then you look forward to the session. You look forward to meeting the guys and then you eat breakfast. It’s a routine. And then that’s taken away from you for four, five months.”
Into that vacuum left by the injury comes rehab, and both Finlay and Molino stressed repeatedly that the process of coming back from an injury was one of the hardest things they’ve had to deal with as a player. Instead of being out on the pitch running drills to help them get sharp for a game, they’re running through a hip series exercise to strengthen everything up and down their legs in an effort to stave off future injuries. “We’ve played years professionally,” said Finlay, “and some of the exercises we’re doing I guarantee we have never done.”
The human body is an often confusingly interlinked series of mechanisms and motors all pushing and pulling to keep us upright and — in Molino and Finlay’s case — perform incredible athletic feats of skill, timing and strength. Their experiences over the last several months have given both players a new appreciation for that, and also for the intricacies of the game seen from a different angle.
“The way I am starting to see the game, I think my soccer IQ has actually been heightened,” said Finlay. “About some of the exercises, I have never been more in tune with my body, both physically and mentally. I understand how I work, mechanically, because of going through this injury.”
Molino doubled down on the way a physical injury could actually help a player in other areas of the game, saying, “You are going to see and going to have different ideas of the game. That makes you better mentally and better in situations. When you are in that position you are going to be a step ahead. Mentally it should be a done deal.”
That optimism about not just coming back, but coming back better is a virtual job requirement for a pro athlete. When it pays off, it’s gritty. When it doesn’t, it’s quixotic. Sometimes it can come off as cocky, but listening to Molino and Finlay talk about not only their chances to work together but also the importance of working alone or very closely with a trainer one-on-one, you begin to sense that what’s at the heart of an athletic career is not those moments of singular achievement but these moments when they have to muster a mix of determination, realism, hope and confidence to keep going. As Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” In its own way, their fight to come back matters as much to the fabric of the team as anything that happens on the field. Next year is coming and they are — of course — eager to fight to be a part of it.
“There will be changes even in the winter and we understand that,” said Finlay. “The best that we can do is get back to our level and go from there. There will be a challenge for jobs next year. We are not guaranteed to come back off of injury — we know there is still a test in front of us.”