Bryan Finnerty gazed across the table and saw himself.
It was late last October, and he was out to lunch in Ann Arbor, in town for that night’s men’s soccer game between Michigan and Wisconsin. Bryan was catching up with one of his fraternal twin sons, Owen, who doubled as the Wolverines’ backup goalkeeper.
Michigan had only three games left on its regular season schedule and Owen, a freshman, had yet to see the pitch. He was the backup to senior stalwart Andrew Verdi, the eventual Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.
Bryan had been in Owen’s shoes before. Thirty-two years ago, he was a backup goalkeeper for San Diego State, slotted behind senior Felipe Hernandez on the depth chart. To begin the 1987 campaign, Bryan, a redshirt sophomore, readied for life on the bench, unlikely to contribute for the third straight season.
Then everything changed.
Eleven games in, Hernandez fell victim to a broken leg in an ugly collision during practice, thrusting Bryan into the starting lineup.
Bryan took his opportunity and ran with it. In his first game in the net against rival San Diego, he anchored a 2-0 shutout win. He steered the Aztecs all the way to the NCAA Tournament final, the first chapter in what would become a successful 13-year career that spanned the collegiate and professional ranks on the National Professional Soccer League’s Detroit Rockers.
So as Bryan looked at Owen, whose lack of playing time made redshirting a possibility, he had just one message to relay: be ready.
“Most guys just shut it down mentally at that point,’’ Bryan said. “They’re just done, ready for next year. But what if the coach looks down the bench and says it’s time for you to go in? Do you say yes or no? Without hesitation, Owen goes ‘Yes, for sure. I’m taking every chance I can get. I’m ready for it. I’m ready to go.’ ”
That evening against Wisconsin, Verdi suffered an injury that forced him out of the game. Owen was summoned.
“Hearing my dad’s story so many times before, I think I was prepared in a way that I knew I needed to be ready because my dad always told me to be ready,” Owen said. “I put myself in the right mental place, the always be ready aspect.”
Verdi’s injury proved to be season-ending; the reins to the net were now Owen’s. He didn’t miss a beat.
In his first collegiate start, he shut out rival Michigan State, 2-0, much like Bryan did against San Diego all those years earlier. He piloted the Wolverines on a run in the NCAA Tournament — just as Bryan had done with his Aztecs — ending in the Sweet Sixteen.
Like father, like son.
Said Bryan: “You just can’t script it.”
A sobering predicament faces kids pursuing a sport in which one of their parents found success. Every day of their childhood, they confront a reminder of all they have yet to achieve. Some aspiring athletes crumble under the pressure, engulfed by their parent’s shadow. Others opt for a more auspicious outlook.
Owen always viewed his dad as a beacon of possibility, not a towering wall of his own unfulfilled expectations.
“I felt a drive, almost like I wanted to experience my dreams to play professional soccer and collegiate soccer and take the game as far as I can,” Owen said. “Having a dad who did the same thing I wanted to do, that inspired me to do that as well. I knew it was feasible.”
From an early age, Owen grew cognizant of his dad’s soccer career. He watched old tapes of Rockers games, seeing his dad shine in goal against his adversaries.
It was through these films that Owen got a sense of who his dad was as a goalkeeper.
“Watching the games, not a lot of (my actions) were censored out back then,” Bryan remembered, laughing. “Owen would go, ‘Dad are you cussing there? Are you yelling that?’ It was just the intensity I played with. He grew to understand that, when you’re on that side of the touchline, you should have that level of intensity that the game deserves and needs.”
Playing with that vigor is a requisite for goalkeepers, perhaps more so than it is for other positions. Manning the net comes with the utmost pressure — being the last line of defense, the boundary between win and loss and often the scapegoat for the latter. Accordingly, goalkeepers, the good ones, have trademarked characteristics. They are dogged, unshakable. Bryan calls it a “bravery chip.”
It’s a trait that’s been visible in Owen since he was 13, only a year after he took up goalkeeping full-time.
It was the 2014 State Cup final and he got peppered with shots, his team vastly outmatched. In the first half alone, he made 15 saves and allowed just one goal.
In the halftime huddle, Owen inspired.
“He comes in and just pumps the guys up,” Bryan recalled. “It’s a spot where most goalkeepers want to be in a shell and crawl under a rock, cause they know that’s coming in the second half. He just showed a lot of moxie, to have what it takes between gears to be able to get scored on and still bounce back and have that resolve. I remember thinking to myself he’s got it, he’s got that chip.”
Owen and Bryan’s similarities in the net go beyond the chip. They share the same charisma and demeanor, that fervor. They’re both risk-takers and have a knack for making the big save. Hard work runs in Finnerty blood — “control the controllable” is a family mantra.
And Owen’s career path, rather eerily, continues to resemble that of his father.
Last May, Owen stood out on the turf field at Keyworth Stadium, the home venue for his new team, Detroit City FC. The stands were filled with those Bryan labels “generational fans” of Detroit soccer. It’s a vibrant community that didn’t exist when he played for the Rockers. The ‘90s marked an era where the fans, while devoted, were novice and limited in number.
Bryan has long been a fixture in Detroit’s soccer community. He won over followers with stellar play on the field and activism off it, making routine appearances at schools and camps. When his career ended in 2000, his involvement didn’t cease. Along with his wife, Denise, he launched Opportunity Seed, a nonprofit program designed to stimulate soccer in the area and assist younger players.
On that May evening, Bryan found himself caught up in the moment. He looked on as his son signed autographs for a fanbase he cultivated. Owen laced up to play on a field he laid the groundwork for. He couldn’t help but get emotional.
Here was Owen, literally following in his doting father’s footsteps.
All father-son relationships evolve over time. And along the way, all have their ups and downs. Sports have a way of surfacing these tensions.
The Finnertys were never exempt from any of this. Bryan and Owen’s relationship has had its strains, for which the dinner table was the usual stomping ground.
“There were plenty of times where I thought I knew better, and Owen thought he knew better, which led to some pretty spirited discussions,” Bryan said. “You know, where as a dad who might have grown up playing hockey and then Owen played soccer, I probably wouldn’t have had as much of an opinion.”
Gradually, their relationship has matured. It’s taken effort on both sides.
Bryan, who coached Owen in his early playing days, has acclimated to a more hands-off approach. He’s learned to embrace the life of a spectator, as someone who can’t affect the outcome of the game any longer.
Owen, meanwhile, has grown to appreciate everything his dad has brought to the table, learning it’s often best to heed to dad’s wisdom. In hindsight, he realizes just how fortunate he’s been to have a former goalkeeper around all the time.
“I just love when he watches me,” Owen said. “And having him to coach me and kinda show me what he could show me. Especially as a young kid, to be exposed to someone like that, it was huge. Just having him to talk to all the time and ask questions, to have him by my side all the time was huge for my growth and knowledge of my game.”
Their bond extends beyond the soccer pitch. The two share many of the same passions and cherish the times when they’re not talking about soccer at all, the “guy time” — fishing, surfing, golfing.
“I think through that goalie-to-goalie, dad-to-son relationship, it created a lot of space for us to build many other relationships, which has just been really cool,” Bryan said. “Certainly, soccer has made us closer. I’ll go back to the conversations at the dinner table. To me, that’s like any relationship. It’s tough to have your relationship grow if you don’t have those healthy contention points where you’re challenging each other. Not only did it give us time to communicate with each other about soccer, but also to communicate about life.”
In Owen’s second start as a Wolverine, Michigan hit the road to take on No. 17 Maryland. As the last contest of the 2019 regular season, the match had major implications on seeding for the impending Big Ten Tournament and a potential NCAA Tournament bid.
With under a minute to play, the Wolverines nursed a 3-2 lead. The Terrapins had possession and in a quickly developing play found themselves on the lip of Owen’s 18-yard-box. As a Maryland forward ripped a screaming shot toward the top-right corner of the net, Owen propelled himself into the air. He punched the ball away with his right fist, denying the equalizer with a highlight-reel save.
Michigan held on to win, 4-2.
After the game, Owen made a beeline for the stands to greet a beaming Bryan.
“To just go over there, hugging him as a fan, I think that was a great moment for both of us,” Owen said. “It felt like a lot came together in that moment. I’ll never forget that one.”
Bryan added: “That Maryland moment, it was culminating. A critical point in the season, as a young player when you’re still being tested. To make that save, I was just taken aback. It was kinda like, man, he did that.
“And I was just so, so proud.”