HANOVER, N.J. – During the culminating week of the regular season last year, when day to day continuity may have seemed like the best approach ahead of a Supporters’ Shield-deciding weekend, the New York Red Bulls abandoned their Hanover training facility for an immersive, team-building trip to Army West Point.
Derrick Etienne Jr. just so happened to be the lone player quoted in the team’s detailed recap of its experience in West Point, which was published on Oct. 25. Three days later, on Oct. 28, Etienne Jr. scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Orlando City SC – a goal that secured the greatest regular season points total in MLS history.
Today, as roles reversed and Army West Point was in Hanover for an intense, 90-minute scrimmage, Red Bulls players and head coach Chris Armas continued to grapple with Etienne Jr.’s loan to FC Cincinnati that was announced last Thursday.
“The message is just, do your thing out there,” midfielder and fellow homegrown Sean Davis said. “We all know how good he is, we saw it here at Red Bull. And he’ll get a chance to show it at a different team now. Hopefully he can have a really good loan spell there, come back and make a difference for us.
“We miss him already. He’s, like I said, an important piece to the team, a great guy to have in the locker room, brings a lot of energy. And so, we wish him nothing but the best and hope to see him soon.”
Etienne Jr., 22, signed a Homegrown deal in Dec. 2015. The Haitian international from Paterson, N.J., is one of those enigmatic, free-spirited wingers, capable of being a true artist on the ball, but equally capable of disappearing in matches when the game doesn’t find him.
This style of flair on the ball with an almost nonchalant swagger, perennial in Brazil where Etienne Jr. got much of his footballing inspiration, is endangered in the modern game, as so many teams adopt styles predicated on intense pressing and athleticism or precise, formulaic possession.
To be fair, that evolution is occurring because those latter styles have been effective, particularly when considering it takes a group of elite technical players to operate like Brazil or the Galacticos of Real Madrid. But, even so, the game is losing something in the process, becoming more mechanical and homogenous.
In the case of Etienne Jr., it may not be as deep as the game passing him by. It may just be that he wasn’t consistent enough in practices, and even he admitted last season he wasn’t capitalizing enough in matches. In 60 appearances and 22 starts for the first team over four years, Etienne Jr. had six goals and four assists.
But it’s probably fair to question if these last four years would have gone differently for Etienne Jr. had the Red Bulls not reinvented the wheel in 2015, had they not changed their style to something unrecognizable to the team Etienne Jr. probably envisioned playing for all his years in the academy.
The Red Bulls now find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. While Davis spoke with the expectation of being reunited with Etienne Jr. next season, Etienne Jr.’s loan contains an option for Cincinnati to acquire him full-time after this season.
And Cincinnati is in need of all the help it can get, last place in MLS and bottom in scoring. Etienne Jr. also makes a very affordable $82,063. If Cincinnati, after this dismal expansion season, doesn’t take up that option, as much as the Red Bulls will be happy, it will also speak some ill of Etienne Jr.
If Etienne Jr.’s time at the Red Bulls is in fact behind him, that hypnotic dribbling sequence and finish against Orlando City SC last October will headline a list of moments, from the opening goal in the 2016 USL Cup Final, to the fourth goal in a rout of New York City FC in May 2018, to a game-winning finish against Zlatan and the LA Galaxy this May, to a magical Gold Cup night at Red Bull Arena in June with his Haitian national team.
He’s always had a propensity for the big occasions – particularly at home – just like the flashy Brazilians he worshipped as a kid. Armas echoed the void that Etienne Jr.’s departure has already left, and it seems the Red Bulls’ plan is to wish for the unlikeliest of outcomes: a productive loan and a return home in 2020.
“I think everyone who knows Derrick around here knows that he’s given a lot to our team, and his presence is missed, even his personality,” Armas said. “He’s not just a good player, he’s a good guy around here that a lot of people value, and we love his personality. So, never easy in this business, but I think he knows that…we value him.”