Danielle "Dani" Etienne speaks with softness about her son, the meaning behind her favorite Haitian traditions, and her paternal grandfather, who watches every single one of her games. But once the conversation turns to her sport, the footballer’s voice gains a slight edge. Her cadence increases, and she speaks with bold confidence, as if she’s running in place and getting fired up before a match.
Etienne, sister of Atlanta United winger Derrick Etienne Jr., is in Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup as a member of the Haiti women’s national team. The redshirt senior at Fordham University will be in action this week as the tournament kicks off Thursday, July 20. Haiti’s first match of the group stage is scheduled for Saturday morning.
The 22-year-old Etienne was born in the United States, and calls New Jersey home, but has strong ties to her Haitian roots. One of the country’s traditions that Etienne takes the most pride in is playing the most popular sport, soccer. Growing up, the midfielder played in the backyard with her brother and was surrounded by her family’s love for the game. Now, she’ll be traveling across the globe to play the sport at the highest level of competition.
“To be able to say that I represent an entire nation, it’s an honor. And you can never take that for granted,” she says. “Every time I step on the field, I make sure I do what I can do well for my country, knowing that I'm also making my family proud too.”
Her connection to Haiti comes from her father’s side. Her father, Derrick Sr., played soccer for the Haiti men’s national team, appearing in Concacaf World Cup qualifying matches and playing for a couple of professional clubs in the United States, the Richmond Kickers and Long Island Rough Riders. Etienne's older brother, Derrick Jr., also plays for Haiti on the men’s side and most recently was called up and saw minutes in the Concacaf Gold Cup.
The family’s love for soccer was passed down from Etienne’s grandfather, Fritz, who was born in Haiti and played for the national team himself before he moved to the United States. He currently resides in Virginia and never misses the chance to see his grandchildren play.
“My grandfather, he says that all the time that he's so proud of me and my brother, because he never even thought that me and [my brother] would play for the national team,” she says. “To wear his country – our country, but his country first – on our chest it means a lot, knowing how proud it makes him, and my father as well.”
Learning she landed a spot on Haiti's World Cup roster was exciting but also not a huge surprise. Etienne has been developing within the national team since she was 14 years old and appeared with the U-17, U-19 and U-20 teams. She was part of the group that sent Haiti to its first U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2018. She went on to make her international debut with the senior team in 2019.
Being a member of the national team for five seasons made Etienne’s chances of being included on the World Cup roster fairly strong, but there was a reason that gave her the slightest pause. On December 3, 2022, Etienne gave birth to her first child, Ezekiel. Having a baby so close to the World Cup qualifying rounds made Etienne’s readiness slightly more unsettled. The circumstances might’ve been an excuse to take some extra time to recover and get back into shape at a gradual pace. But not Etienne. The new mother was determined to work harder than ever to ensure that she returned to full fitness in time to play competitive soccer and realize her dream of playing in the World Cup.
“I hadn't played for a while at that point, but I knew what I wanted and I knew what, basically, all my life I've been training for was to eventually get to a World Cup and play on the highest stage,” she says. “For me, it was like just another day. You just have to put your foot on the gas and don't take it off. I just knew I had to do it.”
After her son was born in December, Etienne embarked on rigorous preparation to return to full form. She set to work, sometimes putting in multiple workouts per day. She called on her teammates to help her regain her physical fitness. They were supportive of her during the process, giving her that extra push when she needed it. Fully cleared by doctors, she adamantly told her coaches and trainers not to hold back or take it easy on her, that she could do everything physically required of a collegiate and international athlete.
“It was about just working as hard as I possibly could to be in good form and be in good shape to give myself a chance to be on that roster.”
Her brother also helped her during the process. Whenever Etienne got frustrated, she would call Derrick Jr. The advice from her brother was to take it one day at a time. He reminded her that she wasn’t going to magically be in shape overnight and gave her positive encouragement on challenging days.
“It was definitely difficult both physically and mentally,” she says. “Sometimes I doubted myself and asked myself if I’m going to be able to do this. Having conversations with my brother and my parents, they always were there to tell me if you want it, you can do it. I know you can't, you just have to believe you can. I think after hearing that over and over again, it really does kick in.”
Her hard work paid off. Etienne returned to the weight she was before she gave birth. She says she even felt faster and stronger than before her pregnancy. She was completing fitness with the team at full capacity. And in just two months, a truly remarkable timeline, Etienne was back playing competitive soccer, working her way to World Cup-level form.
“It was definitely a good feeling to know that my work wasn't in vain,” she says. “All the stuff that I did to push myself past my limit was worth it. It feels great, being here now and being able to give myself an opportunity to show why I can now be in the 18, not just on the roster. It was a great feeling when he [Haiti head coach Nicolas Delépine] gave me that news.”
Etienne returned in time to help the Haiti women’s national team during their World Cup qualification matches. In a playoff tournament held in New Zealand during February that determined the final three spots in this year’s World Cup, Haiti completed a miraculous run. First, they beat Senegal 4-0 then defeated top-seed Chile 2-1 behind a brace from Etienne’s teammate Melchie Dumornay. Winning the tournament secured the country’s first-ever appearance in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Etienne celebrated the joyous moment with her teammates – crying, hugging, yelling out loud that they did it, they made it happen. The last time Haiti made an appearance in the World Cup, men’s or women’s, was nearly 50 years ago in 1974 on the men’s side. For a country currently facing extreme violence and political unrest, experiencing this moment gave the team a sense of pride. For the people of Haiti, it offered hope and shined a positive light on their country.
“Contrary to a lot of things that people may say or think about Haiti, this is the moment where there's nothing negative that can come from it,” Etienne says. “It means a lot, both individually and for our team.”
"This is where I come from and the roots that I have. We're going to be a tough team to get over."
Haiti has a great task ahead as they make their World Cup debut this week in Australia and New Zealand, the host countries for the tournament. Haiti is in Group D, which some consider to be one of the most competitive groups in the field. The first matchup for Haiti is against the no. 4 FIFA ranked women’s team in the world and European champions, England. The Lionesses are themselves undergoing some roster turnover, but many believe they’re capable of making a deep run and competing for the title. Rounding out Group D are a couple more soccer powerhouses in China and Denmark.
Can Haiti, no. 53 in the FIFA women’s rankings, shock the world and make it out of Group D to reach the knockout rounds? Etienne has every bit of belief:
“I have confidence in my team. I know how much talent we have. But the rest of the world doesn't necessarily know that. This is the perfect opportunity to show them that Haiti has been developing over the years and we're at such a great place right now. We’re taking that opportunity to play well.
“I'm looking forward to just being able to step out on the field and play against the best, but also show that I'm no slouch either. This is where I come from and the roots that I have. We're going to be a tough team to get over. Individually, I’m looking forward to competing and playing against players at the highest level and show what I can do and see what opportunities may come from that. Then as a team, we’re looking forward to being able to play well, and maybe we pull out a win or tie and upset a team.”
Following the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Etienne will continue her soccer career. She took a redshirt during the 2022 season at Fordham while she was pregnant, so she’ll get an extra year of eligibility to compete in 2023 for the Rams. After that, Etienne has her sights on taking the next step. She wants to play professionally, either in the NWSL or abroad in Europe, and continue to be a factor for Haiti.
At some point, she’d also like to add another first to her bucket list: visit Atlanta. She’s never actually been to an Atlanta United match to see her brother Derrick Jr. and the 5-Stripes (she’s never even been to the state of Georgia). So, Etienne welcomes the opportunity to bring Ezekiel to see his uncle play for Atlanta United in-person at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Given the work Etienne went through to make it to Australia and New Zealand, there’s no doubt she has the fight, determination and support to get to wherever she wants to go.
“You can't expect it to be given to you easily, and when you get there, you can’t expect it to be done. The work just continues,” she says. “You have to keep pushing. You can never be complacent. Whatever your goal is, there should be another one once you reach that one. That’s been something that I use every time I step out on the field. No matter how good I feel like I'm playing, there's always more I can do.”
Photo credit: Fordham Athletics