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Haitian Messi: Inside Red Bulls midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr.’s rise and family legacy

Oct 25, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Red Bulls midfielder Derrick Etienne (7) before the game at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

HANOVER, N.J. — By nickname standards, “Haitian Messi” is pretty much at the top of the list.

There’s high expectations when compared to one of the world’s greatest players, but Derrick Etienne Jr. dealt with pressure long before supporters in the South Ward came up with the moniker.

For the New York Red Bulls Homegrown midfielder, living up to his family legacy carries a much greater obligation.

“I work so hard because I had the foundation laid down in front of me on what to do and how hard you had to work,” Etienne told Pro Soccer USA. “Without my father and uncle, maybe I might not be here.”

Derrick Sr. and twin brother Darrell Etienne both played professional soccer, first for the Richmond Kickers and then for the Long Island Rough Riders. It was during those Rough Riders days that Etienne got hooked on the sport.

He’d travel to training sessions and games with his dad, often dribbling a ball on the side and gazing at the professionals hoping one day to be among them.

And those players took to 7-year-old Etienne. Guys like Moussa Sy, a Guinean striker, and Venezuelan Giovanni Savarese, now head coach of the Portland Timbers, showed Etienne tricks and asked him to repeat them at the next session.

In addition to Savarese, the team featured Wilmer Cabrera, former Colombian international and current Houston Dynamo coach, and Jim Rooney, who played for the MetroStars, Miami Fusion and New England Revolution before his current post as coach of Boca Raton FC in the National Premier Soccer League.

Etienne learned first-hand how professional players acted and how they trained.

“Derrick Jr. was able to absorb all of that,” Savarese said.

Based on those early interactions, Savarese said he isn’t surprised Etienne, now 21, made it as far as he has in the sport. Savarese considers the recipe for success part drive and part genetics.

“He was born to score goals,” Savarese said.

Savarese was so impressed with Etienne’s development, he tried to sign him while coaching the New York Cosmos.

Mar 31, 2018; New York Red Bulls midfielder Derrick Etienne (7) and Orlando City defender Mohamed El-Munir (13) battle for the ball at Orlando City Stadium. (Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

But Etienne, who was in the Red Bulls Academy at the time, chose to stay with the club. And it paid off when he signed a Homegrown contract on Dec. 21, 2015.

The passion and competitive edge he regularly displays did not form on those drives from his hometown of Paterson, N.J., to Long Island with his father. It was cultivated in the two-family home his father and uncle shared with their families.

At any given time, 10 to 11 soccer-crazed Etiennes were living under the same roof — and soccer was a constant. It was on television 24 hours a day, it was the reason lamps and mirrors inside the house were broken and it spurred now legendary 5-v-5 games in the backyard.

House bragging rights were at stake.

“We’re a very competitive family,” Etienne said.

Growing Up Red Bulls

Etienne joined the Red Bulls Academy in 2009 as an under-14 player and advanced up the ladder, winning a U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship in 2011-12 with the U-16s and captaining the U-18 team. He went on to play professionally for Red Bulls II in the second-tier United Soccer League, always dreaming of following in the footsteps of players like Juan Agudelo, Matt Miazga, Connor Lade, Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, who signed Homegrown contracts.

“All the Homegrown players have that extra something because we’ve gone through the system, we know how much work went into trying to get here and even more work to be able to stay here for more than one or two years,” Etienne said, “It’s a blessing to be able to put that crest on every game and go in front of the fans.”

It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion Etienne would become a Homegrown signing. Jesse Marsch remembers Etienne’s scouting report when he first became the Red Bulls coach in 2015.

“A lot of people spoke to me about Derrick and said he’s lazy, that he takes too many touches on the ball, that he wouldn’t fit into our system,” Marsch recalls.

Etienne heard the criticism from John Wolyniec, a former club legend and Red Bulls II coach.

“When I was younger John said, ‘You might be a little too smart for your own good. You find a way to think outside of working the full amount,’” Etienne said.

That served as added motivation to raise his work rate.

“I think that’s a major key and reason I’m here now,” he said. “I know that’s always the label I had on me. I tried extra hard to make sure when the coaching staff saw me that, yes they heard that, but they can make their own judgement off of what they see.”

What Marsch has seen ever since is a player showing steady growth year after year — from brilliant flashes, such as a few fancy moves in a friendly against Club América on July 6, 2016 to earn his “Haitian Messi” nickname, to selfless work off the ball and in training that doesn’t get noticed by a fickle fanbase.

“This year I see a different man, a more mature person, a more committed person, a guy who thinks more carefully, operates more carefully within the the group, and I think he will be rewarded with his on-field play,” Marsch said, touting 2018 as a breakout season for Etienne.

A year after starting half of his 16 appearances, Etienne has two starts in the six 2018 games he’s played, including the home opener against Savarese and the Timbers. After coming agonizingly close on numerous occasions — he had six shots on frame last year and four more early this season — Etienne finally scored his first MLS goal.

It came in Orlando when Florian Valot won a ball in the midfield, turned and attacked the space in front of him before slipping Etienne through. Etienne chased the ball, altering his run slightly to put himself in position to shoot. His effort bounced off Lions goalkeeper Joe Bendik and into the net to put the Red Bulls in front 2-1 in the 24th minute.

Other than the visiting bench and some traveling supporters in the upper reaches of Orlando City Stadium, few celebrated the milestone in person. But the reaction was much different back in New Jersey.

Derrick Sr. said he had the game, which was broadcast on Twitter, playing on his phone while driving and he had to pull to the side of the road when he heard the call.

Seconds later, the feed was interrupted by a phone call from his wife to tell him the news, followed by a text from his daughter, Danielle.

“I pulled over on the side of the road and just started yelling, screaming,” Derrick Sr. said. “My wife is calling me, my daughter is texting me, ‘Derrick just scored! Derrick just scored!'”

Etienne’s celebration was somewhat muted because the Red Bulls went on to lose 4-3.

“It was a relief,” he said, “I’ve had so many chances that I felt like I should probably have 20 goals in the league by now.”

Long lineage of family inspiration

Derrick Sr. remembers looking up to his older brother Marvin, who won a Division II national championship at Southern Connecticut State in 1987. He was an All-American who played collegiately with Brian Bliss, now Sporting Kansas City‘s director of player personnel, and John DeBrito, who played for five MLS teams in the league’s early days, including a short stint with the MetroStars in 1997.

And Marvin, who went on to play for the Boston Bolts in the American Soccer League, was inspired by his father, Fritz, a top talent in Haiti before moving to the United States at 19.

The tradition of familial inspiration continued with Derrick Sr. and Darrell serving as catalysts for Etienne’ rise in the sport.

“He was born to score goals.”

“I’m a firm believer that the next generation is supposed to supersede the previous generation,” Derrick Sr. said. “I believe that whatever my ceiling was in soccer is supposed to be his floor where he starts in soccer.”

And although Etienne, who has a pair of caps — and one goal — for Haiti, is just scratching the surface of his potential, he continues the family tradition as a muse for 17-year-old sister Danielle, who is part of New York City FC’s Academy, and cousin Omre, who is on the Red Bulls Academy U-15 team.

“I know if I can follow the goals and the path set for me, she can do it,” Etienne said of his sister.

Danielle has taken the mantle and run with it. She helped Haiti clinch a berth in this summer’s U-20 FIFA World Cup in France by finishing third at the Concacaf U-20 Championship in Trinidad in January.

It is the first World Cup appearance on any level for Haiti since the men’s national team in 1974 and the first for any women’s team in the country, or the Caribbean for that matter.

Danielle was in the starting XI in that historic 1-0 win over Canada to earn the World Cup berth. Derrick Sr. and his father Fritz were among the Etiennes watching in the stands at Ato Boldon Stadium and Etienne watched the feed online, all sharing tears of joy.

“She played amazing,” Etienne said. “I texted her right after, ‘Congratulations.’ I shouted her out on Instagram, Twitter, everything. I can’t even put into words how proud I was of her, to see her carry herself in that manner and go on and help lead the team into the World Cup.”

Etienne is quick to point out that Danielle is already a better and different player than him. While Etienne relies on his creativity and flair, never shying away from taking risks, Danielle is more cerebral and composed. A tenacious ball-winner and smart distributor, Danielle makes the right pass every time.

Playing as more of a No. 6 or a No. 8, Danielle reminds Etienne of former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty.

“The way she reads the game, the type of player she is, she’s a completely different player than me,” he said. “She’s more calculated, she thinks more without the ball, she knows where the opponent is going to be. She’s more the anchor of the team.”

From being that 7-year-old on the Rough Riders sideline to throwing confetti in the stands when former Red Bull Juan Agudelo came off the bench in a friendly against Neymar and Santos FC that opened Red Bull Arena in 2010, and now as an important member of the Red Bulls first team — Etienne is following his path while honoring his family history and inspiring its future.

As for that nickname, Derrick Sr. joked it might be more appropriate if it was the “Haitian Ronaldinho,” or the “Haitian Robinho” or even the “Haitian Neymar”

Those were players Etienne emulated and idolized growing up.

“Haitian Messi?”

Etienne can live with that.

“It’s a good nickname,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to live up to it.”

In many ways, he already has.




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