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Berhalter's perfect weapon: Ethan Finlay's flexibility fits the Crew SC attack

The speedy winger fills so many roles on the Black and Gold.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Seven goals in two games will get people talking. Our own Pat Murphy talked about the goal outburst with the team. Adam Jardy of the Dispatch and Andrew King of MLSSoccer.com also had articles about the rain of goals. Columbus Crew SC's 12 goals lead MLS, as does their plus six goal differential. It really is a team effort.

The offensive explosion is the result of outstanding team play and a lot of pieces coming together. I could list pretty much every player on the team on why Columbus is one of the most exciting offenses in MLS, but counter to the coachspeak, I want to focus on only player. Ethan Finlay is the perfect weapon for Columbus Crew SC's attack. Even before his breakout game last Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, Finlay had been enjoying a fine season.

Finlay's combination of intelligence, pace, and technical ability make him a dangerous player, but Gregg Berhalter's offense only accentuates his many talents. That system has evolved over the past year with the arrival of Kei Kamara and Hernan Grana. Finlay has adapted his game to continue to make an impact.

The Winger

Crew SC plays wider than any other team in MLS. Compiled from Opta, they lead the league in crosses attempted (26.8) and crosses completed (7.4) per game. Get the ball wide and get it in. All of those crosses turn into chances.

Using Michael Caley's advanced metrics, Columbus leads the league in Danger Zone shots (think 6 yard box - extended to the 18) that come from a cross with an incredible 75% of them coming from wide. Salt Lake is second at 67% with no other team topping 60%. Essentially Crew SC's best chances come from wide areas and by a large margin. With an offense built on crosses, you need players who can cross the ball and that's where Finlay fits in well.

Finlay isn't known as a hug the touch line and cross it in classic winger, but he's actually an adept crosser. He is second on the team with eight successful crosses, behind Grana's 12. More impressively, Finlay's crossing is much sharper. He completes 40% of his crosses while Grana is successful 24% of the time. Justin Meram is four of eight and Waylon Francis is four of 15 in crosses. Finlay completes a high volume of crosses which turn into chances.

The Provider

I referenced Finlay's crossing above, but that is only a small part of his passing game. Of the 462 passes per game Crew SC average, Finlay contributes an average of 20 per game according to Opta. That's a small contribution compared to Federico Higuain or Tony Tchani who both average near 60, but Finlay's contributions lead to chances.

Finlay is second in MLS with four assists, but his impact with his passes extend beyond that. He is second on Crew SC with 12 key passes; passes that lead directly to shots. Higuain leads the team with 16. Fellow winger Meram has six.

Going into advanced stats, Finlay leads the team with 1.77 expected assists (xA and xG courtesy of American Soccer Analysis). This is greater than Higuain's 1.52 xA number. Finlay's expected assists tally ranks ninth in MLS, bookended by Kaka and Juan Agudelo. That is some sterling company. Expected goals isn't predictive, but just another measure of how well Finlay is getting into dangerous positions and turning those into chances for his teammates.

The Finisher

Finlay's 2014 rightly earned him some respect, but there were always going to be questions if he could offer up a repeat performance or if that season would be his career year. Finlay's already answering those questions with his skillful passing, but the two goals showed that he is still a goal scorer.

Even before his two goal game, that answer was coming. Finlay is third on the team with 14 shots. Those shots were actually in good positions too. Justin Meram has 15 shots on the year, but looking at his expected goal number (.93), he's shooting from more difficult spots. Finlay's xG total is 1.6, second best on Crew SC. Finlay's shots are dangerous chances from prime scoring areas.

Take a look at the chalkboards.

vs. Philadelphia

FinlayCB1

vs. Orlando

FinlayCB2

vs. New England

FinlayCB3

vs. Vancouver

FinlayCB4

Most of those chances higher percentage shots in front of the goalmouth and force the defense to react.

Berhalter's system requires offensive contributions from across the front line. No one player shoulders the entire load. Kamara is expected to lead the line hold up the ball, make smart movements, and finish his chances. Higuain is the prime creator. Meram is expected to find the space as an inside winger. Grana and Francis provide width.

Finlay is the wildcard. He can get into those spaces centrally, or play off Kamara's holdup play, or he can play wider and play the ball in from wide spaces. That flexibility only enhances the effectiveness of the players around him. Higuain and Kamara have a speedy attacker to find. Meram and Francis have another attacker to cross the ball into. He and Grana have developed a great partnership in attack. He's Berhalter's perfect weapon on the right wing.