Oct. 30, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the stands at Sports Backers Stadium in Richmond on Sept. 21 was former VCU men’s soccer standout Derrick Etienne Sr.

His loyalty was torn that night.

VCU’s opponent was defending NCAA champion Virginia, whose midfielders included one Derrick Etienne Jr., a heralded freshman from Paterson, N.J.

“I definitely had mixed emotions,” Etienne Sr. recalled this week. “I’m still a supporter of VCU soccer, so of course I don’t like to see our team get beat. But if anyone can score a goal on [the Rams], I’m glad it was Derrick.”

In the 84th minute, Etienne Jr. received a pass at midfield and then, with a stunning display of footwork, dribbled around and through about a half-dozen Rams before chipping the ball past the goalkeeper. His gem gave the Cavaliers a 1-0 victory and prompted a memorable father-son conversation after the game.

“It was kind of a love-hate thing,” Etienne Jr. recalled, smiling. “He was very happy that I scored my first goal. But he was like, `You couldn’t do it to any other team? You had to do it to my old school?’ ”

Etienne Sr., who now lives in Laurel, Md., was also in the stands last Friday night at Thompson Field in Blacksburg, and he had no qualms about his son’s second goal as a Cavalier. Etienne Jr. scored in the 12th minute and then helped UVA hold off ACC rival Virginia Tech for a 1-0 victory.

Look for the elder Etienne at Klöckner Stadium on Friday night. At 7 o’clock, in its regular-season home finale, 13th-ranked Virginia (9-3-2 overall, 4-2-1 ACC) hosts No. 5 North Carolina (14-1-1, 6-1).

“I know he lives for the big games,” Etienne Sr. said of his son. “He lives for the challenge of taking it up another notch.”

Etienne Jr. was born in Richmond, where his father was playing professionally, but spent most of his childhood in New Jersey. So he was not especially well-versed in the UVA-Virginia Tech rivalry when he arrived in Charlottesville. The Wahoos’ associate head coach, Matt Chulis, filled in Etienne Jr. before the game in Blacksburg.

“Coach Chulis came up to me,” Etienne Jr. recalled, “and said, `This is a big rivalry. This is like a Manchester United-Manchester City derby, so you gotta be ready.’ ”

The 5-10, 160-pound Etienne Jr. embraced the challenge. His tenacity late in the match impressed Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch as much as his spectacular goal. One of the coaching staff’s projects this fall has been helping Etienne Jr. become “not just a dangerous guy, but a reliable guy,” Gelnovatch said, and there’s been clear progress on that front.

“In the Virginia Tech game the other night I saw a guy who really wanted to win,” Gelnovatch said. “When we were defending down the stretch, he was getting after it, understanding that he had to chase and get back, and you could see that desire to win and not just get the ball and wiggle through people. So it showed me something.”

A product of the New York Red Bulls Academy, Etienne Jr. is an accomplished attacking player, “as good as anybody I’ve had at running at people and going at it,” said Gelnovatch, who’s in his 20th season as head coach at his alma mater.

The transition to Division I soccer, though, has been challenging at times for Etienne Jr., who had an assist Oct. 16 in Virginia’s win over Pitt.

“He’s not a bad-character guy or a non-team guy,” Gelnovatch said. “Nothing like that. He’s just a little bit of a product of being allowed to do what he does best, which is dribble and attack and beat people, his Red Bull team being good enough for him just to do that.

“It would be harsh to say he’s taking plays off or zoning out. That’s not the case.”

Still, Etienne Jr. has had to learn to drop back into a defending position after Virginia turnovers.

“The margins [for error] where he’s coming from are not as tight as they are here,” Gelnovatch said. “And when he moves on to the next level, those margins will be even tighter. So what he’s learning here, I think, is going to hugely benefit him for the next level, because those margins are going to be tight. It’s great that he can wiggle through people, and there’s even leeway that you give guys like that. But you still have to be completely in-tune, willing to chase, willing to block, slide, defend, and understand all the dynamics.”

His son, Etienne Sr. said, is accustomed to playing “an aggressive, high-pressure, attacking style with the Red Bulls, where Virginia is more, `We’re sitting back and we defend first, and then we’ll counter.’

“That was frustrating for me as a dad, because I know he’s an attacking player. But it was good for him to learn other positions, learn other formations, and he is starting to settle down. I definitely think he will be more well-rounded. The same effort you put into attacking, he’s been taught here to put that same effort [into defending].”

Etienne Jr., who usually plays wide in the midfield, is part of a talented freshman class that includes Edward Opoku, Jean-Christophe Koffi, Malcolm Dixon and Wesley Wade, among others. Dixon and Wade also played in the Red Bulls Academy, and they’ve been close friends with Etienne Jr. for about a decade.

Each chose UVA independently of the other two, Etienne Jr. said. “We all knew Virginia was looking at us, and we all thought [playing together in college] would be cool. But we all wanted to do what was best for ourselves and our families, and this ended up being the case.”

Had things worked out differently, Etienne Jr. might have been the second Cavalier in his family. His father, who starred at Midlothian High School in the Richmond area, grew up wanting to play for UVA.

“But unfortunately I just couldn’t do it,” Etienne Sr. “I goofed off my senior year academically and just didn’t have the GPA.”

Etienne Jr. committed to Virginia as a high school junior. Not until this summer, though, were the Cavaliers assured of having Etienne Jr. this fall. He impressed playing as an amateur for the Red Bulls’ entry in the United Soccer League and nearly chose a pro career over college.

“It was very close,” Etienne Sr. said. “He was a key player on the USL team and was training with the [Red Bulls’] first team.”

Ultimately, though, Etienne Jr. said, “I really just wanted to come here and focus on bettering myself education-wise and coming here to this great program.”

Etienne Sr. played professionally for the Richmond Kickers and the Long Island Rough Riders, a club on which his teammates included Chulis, and he also represented Haiti on its national team.

His son grew up around soccer. “As soon as he could walk, he got a ball,” Etienne Sr. “And I think it was a blessing that he would come to all my games when I was playing, first at Richmond and then Long Island.”

Etienne Jr., who rooms with another freshman midfielder, Daniel Barir Jensen of Denmark, has dual citizenship and has played for Haiti national teams at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 levels.

“As of right now I’m playing with Haiti, but if the U.S. were to call, I’d have to sit down and see what would be my best option,” he said.

Etienne Jr., 18, chose UVA in part because he was confident the coaching staff would help him realize his dream of playing professionally.

A freshman midfielder on the UVA team that reached the College Cup in 2013, Jordan Allen, signed a homegrown contract with Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake late that year.

Asked if he saw similarities between Allen and Etienne Jr. as college freshmen, Gelnovatch said, “Only in the sense that I feel like they’re both pros. I think Jordan was further along in his tactical discipline when the ball turns around, but Derrick is a more talented guy running at people. Derrick is a more talented guy off the dribble running at you, and Derrick also makes good decisions on when to get it off his foot.”

For Etienne Jr., a decision on whether to pursue a pro career in 2016 will come after this season. For now, he’s enjoying college life and doing all he can to help the `Hoos make another long postseason run.

“It’s been really good,” Etienne Jr. said of his first season at UVA. “I’ve been able to contribute to the team early, so I thought that was very good. And then being able to get two goals in two big games was very good. So I feel like it’s been a success so far, but hopefully we can do more.”

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