MEXICO CITY -- Derrick Etienne Jr. remembers the first game in Atlanta United history. The new member of the club wasn’t on the team just yet – but he was at the match in-person on the pitch.
“Just seeing the atmosphere and how quickly they were able to come into the league and integrate, I think that’s something that rarely happens,” he said.
Since joining Atlanta United this offseason, Etienne said his integration has been good. Although slightly hampered by injury, Etienne is with the team in Mexico and able to participate in training. He said it was difficult for him to be on the sideline early on, but now that he’s with the team and training, he’s enjoyed getting acclimated.
“To be with the guys, to get that little bit of banter, for them to see how I am, to see how they are, just to integrate [to the team] has been good,” he said. “Guys are learning me, I’m learning them, seeing their tendencies, so I think it’s only a matter of time before it all gets to click.”
“Derrick’s been adapting very well," head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. "I think in a short period of time, we already know Derrick very well. He’s very fun, he likes to put a good mood in the squad and has good conversations with players. So, you can see already that he can be a good factor for the team.”
His goal is to be fit and ready for Atlanta’s MLS home opener on February 25 against the San Jose Earthquakes. When it comes to what Atlanta United supporters might see out of Etienne, he’s very confident about his game. His skill set includes being able to stretch defenses and create holes in the middle of the pitch as a midfielder who can make runs and break lines.
“I’m hoping to be able to continue that path and to continue running in behind to open up spaces for Thiago and them,” he said. “I also feel like that’s another threat that teams have to worry about because it’s something that’s been lacking so far, but it’s only a matter of time before it all gets corrected.”
He knows that a fast, free-flowing style of play is what Atlanta United supporters are used to watching, and he’s seen that early in Pineda’s vision. Being able to help the group get there is exactly what excited Etienne most of all about joining the team.
“I know how good I am and I know what I bring to the table,” he said. “I feel those things, what I bring to the table, helps players like Thiago [Almada], helps players like Luiz [Araújo], helps all the other guys because I’m someone who doesn’t always need the ball at my feet to make an impact in the game. So, I think that my skill set will be perfectly fine.”
The 26-year-old signed with Atlanta United as a free agent. Before that, Etienne was familiar with Atlanta United’s identity and history. He also knows even the more intricate details, like the underlying intensity when the 5-Stripes face off against the New York Red Bulls, the club he played 11 matches for in 2019.
Etienne also had a trustworthy source that educated him about Atlanta, and it’s a player who supporters will recognize: Darlington Nagbe, Etienne’s former teammate with the Columbus Crew and a member of Atlanta United’s squad that won the 2018 MLS Cup. Before even thinking about joining Atlanta United, Etienne learned more about the club from Nagbe. Etienne said Nagbe spoke highly about the little details that make Atlanta United a successful club, such as the top-notch training facility and a staff committed to going above and beyond.
“That’s something that was really big to me because I think that everybody on the outside sees the final product and they think that’s the end-all, be-all,” he said. “But when you’re behind-the-scenes, you have to see how many little things go into what makes a winning franchise and what makes a winning team.”
As a new acquisition, this is Etienne’s first preseason with Atlanta United. When asked about the trip, he reported feeling the elevation of Mexico City early on a walk to dinner with teammates. Even though the high altitude might cause heavy breaths, he feels confident that the trip will help the group.
“I think it’s something that will help us in the long run,” Etienne said. “The fact that we’re pushing with these high levels and high elevation, I think that’s going to help us in the long run to maintain fitness and give us an advantage when we get back to Atlanta.”
Etienne also shared some behind-the-scenes activities the team has been doing during their 10-day trip in Mexico. In their downtime, guys have been playing cards, spending time together and participating in facilitated team bonding exercises. Some guys even brought a PlayStation, so when they’re not training on the pitch, they're playing each other in video games.
When asked who the best FIFA player on the team is, Etienne was quick to answer:
“Luiz [Araújo],” he said. “That guy’s different. I’m not playing him. He’s not going to embarrass me.”