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Derrick Etienne Jr: From being cut to winning MLS Cup

The MLS Cup Final goalscorer is grateful for his opportunity as the next man up.

MLS: Cup Final-Seattle Sounders FC vs Columbus Crew SC Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

There was a specific moment in the life of Derrick Etienne Jr. when he knew he wanted to become a professional soccer player. It was during a league final where Etienne scored the second goal to help secure a league championship.

No, this wasn’t in the 2020 MLS Cup against the Seattle Sounders. It was the game-winning goal in the 83rd minute to secure the 2002 United Soccer League title for the Long Island Rough Riders. The goal was scored by his father, Derrick Etienne Sr.

He shared that special moment in a 2019 interview with WBUR, when Etienne Jr. played for the New York Red Bulls. Soon after remembering his father’s goal, the winger was loaned to FC Cincinnati, where he made only over five appearances and two starts in 2019. New York cut ties with the then 23-year-old at the end of the season leaving the midfielder with 80 Major League Soccer games under his belt available.

Last February, the Columbus Crew took advantage of the Red Bulls’ decision, signing the wing in what would end up being a key offseason pickup in their championship run.

“I was grateful that Columbus gave me an opportunity to come in,” Etienne reflected after helping the Crew win the club’s second-ever MLS Cup title on Saturday. “I was able to just seize that moment and make the team.”

Working hard throughout the preseason, Etienne made a team that already had plenty of competition on the wings between Youness Mokhtar and Luis Diaz. He inserted himself into the middle of this battle, earning 21 appearances and eight starts with a goal and two assists during 2020.

As the end of the season approached, and the Crew was able to get healthy after losing their starting goalkeeper Eloy Room and starting midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe for large parts of the COVID-19-shortened season, Etienne found himself in the starting lineup.

His fast rise on the depth chart shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The Haitian international had a breakout season in 2018, scoring five goals and providing on assist in nine starts and 30 appearances for the Red Bulls. Head coach Caleb Porter signed Etienne for his speed and ability to get up the field, creating space for the other Columbus offensive weapons, but also because he understood the game and fit into the Crew’s system.

Upon his signing, Porter mentioned that he couldn’t believe Etienne was available and president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko called him “a valuable addition.” Black & Gold fans may not have known it at the time, but those two were correct.

Etienne was good enough to start two of the final three Columbus regular season matches. Porter trusted him in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs too, where he had the game-winning assist in a 3-2 victory against his former team, the Red Bulls.

Saturday’s MLS Cup Final 31st minute goal almost didn’t happen with the Crew announcing that he and six other players were added to the medically unable to play list in late November. This caused Etienne to miss the next two playoff matches. His return wasn’t announced until Dec. 9, three days before the Final at MAPFRE Stadium.

After only a fraction of the usual preparation with the team, and with Nagbe and fellow midfielder Pedro Santos both unable to play, Etienne seized another opportunity that was placed in front of him.

“Next man up,” Etienne of that opportunity. “Just be ready for the call and I was able to get the call and get the start.”

With Diaz and Etienne on the wings, and Porter knowing that the team wouldn’t have the same amount of possession without Nagbe and Santos, Columbus stretched the Seattle defense.

“We came out, we pressed. We didn’t sit back,” Porter said of the game plan.

Porter’s apprach paid dividends with a goal by MLS Cup Final MVP Zelarayan in the 25th minute. Etienne followed suit with a beautifully curved goal around Sounders’ goalkeeper Stefan Frei in the 31st minute, his first MLS Cup playoff goal of his career. Zelarayan capped off the evening in the 82nd minute with a top corner goal, securing the 3-0 MLS Cup Final victory.

“Lucas did a great job of finding me open,” said Etienne. “I just wanted to make sure that I finished it.”

It wasn’t only the offensive side of the ball where he had success. Etienne had one blocked shot in the 66th minute and twice in the second half he was able to disrupt Seattle crosses. The intensity that he brought to the 2020 MLS Cup champions was on full display.

At the beginning of 2020, Etienne was just hoping to make a team and have the chance to prove himself again in MLS. He was able to do that and accomplish a childhood dream of winning the MLS Cup. A dream that began seeing his dad do the same thing.