Derrick Etienne, Jr.: “To be able to get to the Gold Cup, football is a healer.” (Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

Front Row Soccer Editor

When Haitian national team takes the field against Nicaragua in a special playoff for the 12th and final berth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Friday, it won’t be playing just for itself. It will be playing for an entire country.

Red Bulls forward Derrick Etienne, Jr., a member of that side, says the Caribbean nation needs some job and what better way than reaching this summer’s biennial competition.

“I think it’s extremely important for all the heartaches and hardships and all the things that happened to Haiti in the past 10 years,” Etienne said, alluding to the 2010 Earthquakes and recent Hurricane Matthew, among other disasters the country has endured.

“Just for us to be able to get to the Gold Cup, football is a healer. For us to be able to get into that tournament of such great importance and to continue our run of form and continue to play well will mean a lot to the country as a whole.”

Unlike the United States, where soccer is just another sport, soccer is a big deal in Haiti. If Les Grenadiers win the aggregate goal series, they will qualify for the Gold Cup for the third consecutive time and for the fifth time in six years.

Haiti will host the Central American team in Port-au-Prince Friday before traveling to Nicaragua for the second leg March 28.

Given that Haiti has participated in only one World Cup — 1974, in many ways, the Gold Cup can be considered its version of the World Cup. At the 2015 competition, the Haitians reached the quarterfinals as an entertaining side.

“When football is being played in Haiti, everything stops,” Etienne, Jr. “That’s the only thing that’s on their minds. For us it’s to get the overall healing and everything better in Haiti. They’ve been through a lot down there. For us to be able to qualify and bring joy to the country would just be amazing.”

No one needs to remind Etienne, Jr. that Haiti was given another opportunity at the second-chance saloon by winning the fifth-place playoff in the Caribbean Football Union tournament with Suriname, 4-2, and host Trinidad & Tobago, 4-3, in extratime.

“We had a chance to qualify early and we didn’t do what we needed to do,” Etienne said. “We had a chance to rectify those mistakes we made in Trinidad and we were able to pull through and do that. Hopefully, we will be able to continue this good form that we had and go into the Nicaragua game and play well.”

From a personal standpoint, that game against the Soca Warriors turned out to be a special one for the former University of Virginia player. He scored the first goal of the match in the 20th minute, which turned out to be his first international goal.

Heck, he was only following a family tradition. His father Derrick Etienne, who played for the Long Island Rough Riders, filled the net for the Haitian national team in his day.

“Scoring goals has been something that has been in my family for years,” the older Etienne said. “For me to be able to do that, to do something in such a big game it was a blessing. Just to see how much it meant to my family, my teammates and to the country, to be able to do it in a game like that, it’s been a long time coming for me, a 16-year-old kid who was struggling to make the U-17 team.

“He was extremely proud. I talked to him on phone hours later, but I’m pretty sure he probably cried or teared up or choked up when I scored. I felt it was great for my grandfather, someone who has been able to see two generations of Etiennes go and put those colors on and be able to score.”

On Friday, Derrick Etienne, Jr. hopes to make his father, grandfather and the entire island of Haiti proud again.