Derrick Etienne rides "destiny decisions" to Haiti Gold Cup homecoming

HARRISON, N.J. — Derrick Etienne Sr. calls them “destiny decisions,” those fork-in-the-road and life-altering opportunities. 

There have been many for his son, Derrick Etienne Jr., from leaving the comfort of the Livingston Lions youth team to join the New York Red Bulls academy at age 11. To staying in the Red Bulls system instead of joining Giovanni Savarese at the New York Cosmos. And to accepting the invite from Haiti's U-17 national team instead of waiting for a call that never came from the United States

Now, Derrick Etienne Jr. will be represent Haiti at Red Bull Arena Monday night (9 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, UDN), hoping to lead Les Grenadiers over Costa Rica and atop Group B of the Concacaf Gold Cup

“The road to destiny is leading back to Harrison on Monday,” the elder Etienne said. “Hopefully all the stars are lining up the right way and it would be great for him to get a goal right there on that field.”

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Derrick Etienne Jr. poses with his father | Courtesy of Etienne family

Some of the biggest moments of Derrick Etienne Jr.’s life have played out at Red Bull Arena — the opening goal in the 2016 USL championship game, a goal in the New York Derby and the winning tally to help the Red Bulls clinch the 2018 Supporters’ Shield title, their third. 

His parents were in the stands for all of those, and they’ll be there again Monday, joined by another 40 or so family members, all rocking the Haiti blue. 

The Etiennes roll deep. 

“This place is very close to my heart,” Derrick Jr. said. “For me to play in front of family, in front of friends, in such an important game to hopefully solidify the group and just to be able to represent the national team at home is a moment I'm going to remember forever.”

Playing for Haiti is special for Derrick Jr. It’s a county where his grandfather played professionally and was on the national team trajectory before sacrificing for his family. At 18, Fritz Etienne left Haiti and immigrated to America with $19 in his pocket. 

Another “destiny decision.”

Derrick Sr. and his twin brother, Darrell, each played for Haiti. Both missed the cut for the 2000 Gold Cup, but joined the team for subsequent World Cup qualifiers. Derrick Sr. was capped eight times, scoring once in a friendly against El Salvador at Foxboro Stadium. 

Now the next generation of Etiennes feature for Haiti. In addition to Derrick Jr., younger sister, Danielle, competed for Haiti at the U-20 World Cup in France and cousin, Omre Etienne, will represent Haiti at the U-17 World Cup in Brazil. 

“It means everything to our families that we continue to keep the dream alive,” Derrick Sr. said. "We're putting a smile on not just our family, but the 12 million Haitians that are in Haiti, and the several hundreds of thousands that are all over the world. It means everything to us. To wear that red and blue is a badge of honor. We don't take it lightly. We're just glad to see our kids are following the same passion to play for Haiti.”

Playing for Haiti, though, wasn’t a given for Derrick Jr. He earned a pair of call-ups to US U-14 camps, but no other invites materialized. 

Derrick Jr. processed the snub. Was he to wait and hope for a US call, or accept an invite into Haiti’s U-17 camp? Even at that young age, he knew what suited him best.

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Darrell Etienne, left, and Derrick Sr., right, with Haiti  | Courtesy of Etienne family

“It was just a matter of the timing and being able to see how they were developing and thinking about my career,” Derrick Jr. said. “I knew from a very young age, I wanted to be a pro. And you have to be with your national team to start off. I saw that as a way to help me gain experience and to become a better player. And I think it's worked out.”

More calls followed, for the U-20s and the senior national team. Now, Derrick Jr. has 13 caps and three goals, more than his father. And this has all happened before his 23rd birthday. 

“First of all, Derrick is a young player and he brings a lot to the team,” Haitian coach Marc Collat said through a translator Sunday. “I expect him to bring a lot more tomorrow. He clearly is motivated and hopefully that will help the team. He’s definitely a good player and we certainly can use his help tomorrow.”

The professional dream for Derrick Jr. came at 4. As a member of the Richmond Kickers, Derrick Sr. said his 2-year-old son kicked the ball around the field postgame. 

Two years later, when Derrick Sr. moved to New Jersey and played for the Long Island Rough Riders, Derrick Jr.’s soccer brain was so advanced he could tell the difference between the different leagues around Europe. He was amazed when the Brazilian Ronaldo transferred to Real Madrid. 

And he told his father of his dream to play professionally like him. 

“I said, ‘OK, this kid is different,’” Derrick Sr. recalled. 

Derrick Jr.’s technical skill was also always advanced, though he was a late bloomer physically. He was a standout on a nationally-ranked Livingston Lions team when Derrick Sr. found out through another family member that the Red Bulls had an academy. 

The Etiennes went to watch a few games and Derrick Sr. was blown away. 

“He was always solid technically, but he needed the physical demands and what the academy brought,” he said. “The environment was great. The coaching was great. I loved it, and the fact that it was a cost-free program, that was the final selling point.”

Derrick Jr. progressed through the Red Bulls pyramid, from academy to Red Bulls II. An opportunity materialized with the New York Cosmos, coached by Savarese, Derrick Sr.’s former Long Island Rough Riders teammate. 

The Etiennes opted to stay with the Red Bulls and not long after became a Homegrown signing for the Red Bulls. 

Another “destiny decision,” another right call. 

And with every step along the way, Derrick Jr. has no regrets. There are no hard feelings, just optimism for the future. 

“He’s already done more than I’ve done,” Derrick Sr. said. “He’s won on every level so far and I'm just imagining there's so much more that he has to go. So, I'm excited about his future."