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Etienne Jr. exorcises personal demons with the help of a former teammate

Shaun Wright-Phillips’ biggest contribution to the Red Bulls may have come this summer, when he helped a struggling Derrick Etienne Jr. find peace.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls
Derrick Etienne Jr. runs in front of the South Ward in celebration after his second-half stoppage time goal against Toronto FC on Saturday.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

HARRISON, N.J. – Red Bulls third-year homegrown winger Derrick Etienne Jr. was in a dark place only a couple of months ago. Getting on the field sporadically, the only consistency in his young professional life was the regret he routinely felt after failing to capitalize during limited game action.

When the calendar turned to August, the spotlight shined on a player that Etienne Jr. describes as an older brother: Bradley Wright-Phillips. The English forward had gone from trialist to club legend in a five-year span, becoming the fastest player in MLS history to 100 career regular season goals.

But, while Wright-Phillips briefly basked in the milestone, the 21-year-old former academy player was in need of a voice to guide him through a career low. Ironically, the wisdom he needed arrived from the other Wright-Phillips brother.

“I think I had a conversation with Shaun Wright-[Phillips] when he came back,” Etienne Jr. said after the match on Saturday night. “And, we talked a little bit, [he] and another friend of his, and we talked about keeping an even keel, level-headed.”

“I mean, I was very disappointed about the chances I missed,” Etienne Jr. added. “I felt there was a couple of games that I didn’t perform well in. And they said that it’s part of being a professional.”

Etienne Jr. was trailing behind Wright-Phillips as he whisked off his red number 99 jersey following his 100th goal at Audi Field on July 25. The historic goal came 80 seconds into a rare start for Etienne Jr., who played another hour before being subbed off, with one off-target shot to show for.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United
Bradley Wright-Phillips runs to the corner after scoring his 100th career MLS regular season goal on July 25.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Three days later, Wright-Phillips rested and Etienne Jr. lined up in a rotated team as the lone forward – a position not tailored to his strengths. Defensive dysfunction plagued the changed lineup and the Red Bulls fell behind three goals to Columbus Crew SC in 31 minutes. Etienne Jr. again finished the night with one off-target shot.

He had to wait almost a month for his next start, but in the interim he received the vital message that got him thinking straight once again.

In his return to the starting lineup on Aug. 26, Etienne Jr. only had one shot, but this time it was on-target, forcing a leaping save from D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Even more noteworthy than the shot was the way Etienne Jr. looked back on his performance afterward, clearly displaying a changed outlook.

“Of course, as an attacking player, you want to get goals,” Etienne Jr. said after the match on Aug. 26. “But, I mean, we won, so that’s the most important thing. I mean, I think I scored against Orlando and we lost. So, it doesn’t really matter.”

“At the end of the day, all we want is wins,” Etienne Jr. added. “We’re trying to get closer to Supporters’ Shield and ultimately MLS Cup. So, at the end of the day, yeah, you do want personal accolades. But, the team comes first.”

On Saturday night, the smooth 5-foot-10 winger came on as the second substitute for Chris Armas. The Red Bulls needed a win to keep pace in the Supporters’ Shield race with their next opponent: first-place Atlanta United, but the match was scoreless when Etienne Jr. replaced Daniel Royer.

Within three minutes, though, the player affectionately known as “Haitian Messi” got to the end-line and delivered a troublesome cross for Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono and his defenders. Wright-Phillips collided with Bono going for the cross, and the ball popped out to Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, who kicked in a pinball goal to break the deadlock.

Then, three minutes into second-half stoppage time, Etienne Jr. received a lofted pass from Wright-Phillips, opportunistically running in behind after Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta tumbled over backpedaling. Etienne Jr. had not scored since May 12, but he curled toward goal with two touches as crisp as the late-September air and chipped Bono for his fourth goal of the season.

The Spanish public address announcer was still saying the minute of Etienne Jr.’s goal when Referee Kevin Stott whistled an end to the match – a match the referee left his fingerprints on in a significant way.

His late yellow card to Wright-Phillips, for dissent toward Assistant Referee Brian Poeschel, suspends the star English forward for next weekend’s titanic clash at Red Bull Arena between the two best teams in MLS.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Derrick Etienne Jr. and others celebrate with Bradley Wright-Phillips after one of his two second half goals against Atlanta United on May 20 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“It is what it is, it’s just really poor from [the referee],” an irate Luis Robles said afterward. “We have this marquee match-up against Atlanta, which is going to dictate the Shield and…would we like to have Brad out there? Of course.”

“But, with that being said, I have a lot of belief in our guys and, we’re not going to let this phase us,” Robles added. “We’re going to have a great training week and we’re going to be ready for next week.”

Wright-Phillips had not been suspended for a regular season game in his five-year MLS career before Saturday. And, agonizingly, there may not have been a single non-playoff match over the last few seasons that rivals the importance of the team’s upcoming meeting with Atlanta on Sept. 30.

Who carries the torch up front in his absence is an open-ended question, with no articulated-worded, long-winded response as good as the succinct three-letter answer: BWP. But, perhaps part of the solution will be the young winger who reveled in Wright-Phillips’ winning goal against Atlanta on May 20; the very player that overcame personal strife thanks in part to, of all people, Wright-Phillips’ brother.

“He has to be consistent; with any young player, sometimes that’s the most difficult part,” Robles said of Etienne Jr. “And, I have a lot of belief in him, I know this locker room has a lot of belief in him. And, if he’s the guy that’s called on for next week, we feel like he’s going to make a difference.”