There’s a justifiable amount of excitement coming out of the Columbus Crew. After all, winning a season-opening match 4-0 against the Vancouver Whitecaps is cause for celebration. It symbolizes a performance of strong defense and expectation exceeding offense. It was the highest-scoring season opener for the Black & Gold since forward Brian McBride led the first-ever Crew side to a 4-0 victory against D.C. United. Don’t tell that to head coach Caleb Porter.
“Thought we should have scored more,” said Porter in Saturday’s post-match press conference.
It’s not a coach’s job to celebrate a single match, let alone the first match of the season. With 33 more Major League Soccer regular season games to go, Saturday’s win could be the standard or the outlier. Joining in with the same tone is winger Derrick Etienne Jr.
Entering the 2022 MLS campaign, Etienne had a singular focus for improving his game. Etienne wanted to be more clinical offensively. After 2021 where Etienne didn’t score his lone goal of the year until Oct. 27, the winger’s offseason work paid off in the first match. While all of his work doesn’t show on the stat sheet, Etienne was part of three out of the four Crew goals.
Looking back at last season, which will be done a lot if the Crew can continue the team’s matchday one form, Etienne’s highest shot total was three, with a high shots on target of two. Against Vancouver, Etienne shot five with three on target. Showing an immediate improvement in an area where the 25 year old looked to grow.
Now Etienne is in a position that not a lot of wingers have held onto in the past two seasons, a starting one. Week-by-week in the starting 11 isn’t guaranteed for the left winger role, but Etienne’s performance earned him the spot for at least another week heading into Saturday’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes.
“It was good to get a goal and an assist,” said Etienne. “But still disappointed because I still had other chances that I feel like I should have put away.”
Disappointment isn’t the first word that comes to mind when watching the Saturday match. In the 25th minute, Etienne brought down a booming cross by new winger Yaw Yeboah, and slotted the ball past Vancouver goalkeeper Thomas Hasal to put Columbus up two. In the 84th minute, his deflected shot landed to Luis Díaz, who scored. In the 87th minute, it was Etienne charging the penalty area that set up midfielder Lucas Zelarayán for the fourth goal.
Sure, there were other opportunities missed by the Haitian International, but in the overall scope of the match, it’s easy to nitpick moments when it was so offense heavy. Especially when Etienne was on the field all but three of the 90 minutes. Most notably, the 21st minute when Etienne received a backheel pass from forward Miguel Berry and rushed a weaker shot on goal, a shot that easily could go down as the first match excitement in front of a raucous Nordecke.
Etienne’s performance, if repeated throughout the season, gives the Crew winger presence that it’s desperately searched for over the past two years. Strong play by one winger has the potential to stretch to those competing for the same spot. For example, Díaz’s goal came as a substitute. That was also after the Whitecaps went down to 10 men, but to say there was a lack of confidence in the winger core last year is an understatement. Both Etienne and Díaz matched their entire 2021 season goal production in the first match of 2022. Etienne is who got it started.
“I love the confidence that he has right now and I think he’s been more decisive in those moments,” said Porter on Thursday. “He’s very decisive on the goal that he scored. You know, great touch, great finish.”
On Saturday, all three wingers who received substantial time on the field exhibited that confidence. During the preseason, Porter said that Etienne, Díaz and Alexandru Matan each were taking the added competition as professionals. There wasn’t anger or pouting amongst a group that has rotated heavily since 2020. Instead, the outcome looks like confidence and the makings of a genuine competition.
“My goal is to be that guy,” said Etienne. “When I get the chance to start and be the guy, I try to do everything in my power to not slip up and give up an opportunity. But, at the end of the day, we saw all the team and whoever’s doing the best for the team in the week of training deserves to be out there.
Right now though, it’s Etienne’s to lose.