By Ralph “Onz” Chery
Danielle Étienne didn’t expect it to happen this early but there she was walking on Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Puerto Rico to make her senior team debut for Haiti as an 18 year old. It was a tough game to make a senior team debut, Les Grenadieres were playing a Caribbean Olympics qualifier versus Suriname last October.
Since Étienne was only a teenager, of course, she was nervous, yet she was ready to prove that putting her name in the starting line up “wasn’t a mistake.”
As Haiti’s anthem was playing from the speakers, the youngster stood alongside her teammates and put one hand behind her and the other one on her chest. The Haitian team is very young, averaging, 19.8 years of age, however, she was and still is one of the youngest and shortest players in their starting line up, standing at 5’ 3.
The midfielder put up a stellar performance against Suriname to help Haiti win the match 10-0. After her dream debut, Étienne had to face a couple of rough learning experiences. Haiti fell to the United States, 4-0, and to Costa Rica, 2-0, in the next round of the Olympics qualifiers in late January.
Les Grenadieres did win their last Olympics qualifier with a convincing 6-0 victory over Panama but didn’t qualify for the tournament.
Prior to the last stages of the Olympics qualifiers, despite always being one of the youngest and shortest players on the pitch, Étienne established herself as one of the most promising teenage players in Caribbean soccer.
As noted, Haiti’s team is only average 19 years of age, therefore they’re not short of early bloomers. Étienne stands out because she plays at the top collegiate level in the United States, one of the hardest developmental women’s leagues in the world and, last year, she won the most major accolades out of all the other teenagers on the senior team.
Étienne made the Atlantic-10 Conference All-Rookie team last season with Fordham University and for Haiti, was selected on Foot Fem’s 2019 Team of the Year and was ranked as the country’s fifth best player that year.
These were some rather glamorous recognitions to handle as a teenager.
“I don’t really feel pressured,” she said. “I know what I have to do every time I step on the field. I don’t take it as pressure, I take it, as responsibility. It’s really empowering, it shows me that there’s a lot of people who see potential in me. The awards I’m winning and being nominated for brings me a little bit of confidence, it gives me a little support and encouragement.”
Although Étienne is originally from New Jersey, she chose to play for Haiti over the United States especially since she grew up in a Haitian household. She’s a central midfielder with an elegant touch, high soccer IQ on both ends of the field and great passing skills.
The 19-year-old is versatile, being able to play anywhere in the midfield but, according to Fordham’s head coach, Jessica Clinton, what separates Étienne from most players is that behind her small figure and sweet teenage smile, she thinks well above her age.
“There’s a good sense of maturity about her,” Clinton observed, “how she goes about her business, her thought process, she’s so young and ready to take on the world. Her soccer sense is good too. She knows what she wants and what she’s looking for.
“She’s not the loudest one but she does make her point across. I’m sure being one of the youngest players in the Haitian system, it wasn’t very easy, especially when you’re taking older players’ spots. I think she can be number one [in Haiti] at some point but we’ll give her a little bit of time.”
Going back to 2016, the teenager missed out on her first opportunity to play for Haiti. She was called on to participate in the Under-15 CONCACAF tournament but, sadly, she received her Haitian passport too late. As a result, Étienne was only able to practice with the team.
“It was actually devastating,” the Haitian American soccer player said. “I was really excited to, you know, to play at a different level. And honestly, I wanted to represent my country and show that I can play with these girls. I was there with them, I wanted to play with them. It was heartbreaking.”
Meanwhile, in high school, Étienne was a starter since her freshman year for one of Maryland’s powerhouses, Archbishop Spalding. She earned Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland All-Conference accolades during her two seasons with Archbishop, her freshman and sophomore year, and helped the school win their conference in 2016.
Étienne grew up playing with her older brother and father, hence playing with girls bigger and older than her was just another day at the office. Derrick Étienne Jr., her older brother by five years, is a member of the Haitian national team. Her father, Derrick Étienne Sr., is an ex-Haitian international also.
The two constantly gave Étienne advice on her game. It’s safe to say that being in a soccer family is the leading hand that molded the midfielder into the player she is now.
After not being able to play at the U-15 level, Haiti called her again for the U-17 Caribbean Cup in 2017. Les Grenadieres won the tournament. Étienne found the net three times, including a wonder goal in which she juked a Dominican Republic player on top of the box before curling a shot to the far corner in front of the Haitian fans at Stade Sylvio Cator.
She then played in the U-17, the U-20 CONCACAF Championship and in the U-20 World Cup in 2018 at 17 before becoming a starter for Fordham as a freshman the following year. Hence, when Haiti’s senior team called on her name to start an Olympic qualifier, she was ready.
Étienne was one of the main forces for Haiti against Suriname in her senior debut. But then everything tumbled down in the middle of the game. As she was going for an interception, one of the Suriname players stuck a foot out, causing her to sprain her ankle.
Étienne rested her forearms over her face as she was getting stretchered off the field.
“It opened my eyes to realize that soccer can end at any moment,” she said. “It kind of just showed me that I have to take advantage every time I can play.”
Étienne missed her country’s next game and Fordham’s following five outings. The starlet returned to action on Oct. 28 with the Rams against Davidson College in a 2-1 win. Then Fordham, unfortunately, lost the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals to University of Massachusetts 4-0.
This loss was followed by Haiti’s deficits to the United States and to Costa Rica. As mentioned, they blanked Panama 6-0 in their last Olympics qualifier, however, didn’t book a spot in the tournament, which can be tough on a teenager. But it won’t stop Étienne from shooting for the moon.
“This is just the beginning,” the 19-year-old said. “I want to make it really far. This [my accomplishments so far] is just one step in a really, hopefully, successful career.”