I’ll begin with the moment that we’re probably all thinking of: an injury-time header against last years MLS Cup champions, a team who thoroughly out-classed the Timbers on their last visit to Jeld-Wen in a 5-3 rout that saw the Galaxy net 4 in 9 minutes and then coast through the next 60 minutes at a canter. Andrew Jean-Baptiste was a stalwart on defense all through the game, showing again how he could handle Keane and Zardes with his strength, speed, awareness, and presence. ESPN’s match summary reads…
Once again, stoppage time wasn’t kind to the Galaxy, as Portland stunned the champs with a late goal. L.A.’s veteran back line wasn’t to blame this time, either. Instead, it was youngster Gyasi Zardes who was victimized by Jean-Baptiste.
Funny that Jean-Baptiste and Zardes are both 21, but only one is a youngster. This is perhaps accurate though, he has been learning, changing, improving in leaps since he was drafted at the beginning of 2012.
06/19/2013 At LA
Here he is paired with Pa Modou Kah
for the Gambian’s first start, and one could be forgiven for worrying that this debut pairing would look like his debut with Silvestre against NY at home. Instead and the two of them looked near-unbeatable. His speed kept him blocking the counter-attacking passing lanes that LA have exploited for years, he blocked runs, his deft touch nicking the ball from Robbie Keane in style. Jean-Baptiste and Kah held a Donovan, a Keane, and a blazingly fast Zardes all on the field and the Timbers looked, except for two sharp shots on goal, in safe hands. Keane is nothing if not quick and clever in both drawing penalties and sneaking behind or in front of defenders, ghosting free to link up with Donovan but neither of those happened in LA. We were all left to wonder if this centerback pairing may look like the future of the Timbers backline that had seen 3 futures already this season.
05/08/2013 At Dallas
In Dallas and Jean-Baptiste is paired with Futty, replacing David Horst, gone for the season with an ACL tear, doing admirably. Small errors here and here, but steady and solid until the 75 minute, when he yanks the jersey of Blas Perez, who begins to fall. Jean-Baptiste inexplicably tries to hold him by his jersey. If you watch the replay, Perez is leaning back away from him and Jean-Baptiste is whipping him around 180 degrees, trying to hold him upright. Whether he thought Perez was going to slip behind if he let go or if he worried he’d have a penalty called if Perez hit the ground, a more seasoned defender would have let him go earlier. He did not, Juan Guzman gives him a yellow and a penalty, Kenny Cooper slots in the penalty, and the Timbers walk out of Dallas with a single point instead of three. Perhaps he’s not directly at fault, but he’s implicated, and for a defender such an implication is not a good thing.
03/16/2013 At Seattle
In Seattle, there he is in the 15th minute, paired with Silvestre because David Horst is still injured, bumping Eddie Johnson from behind, sprinting to catch him after Silvestre steps too far forward and Johnson finds a clear path into the empty box with only Jean-Baptiste in any position to defend. He’s lucky to not be sent off, the Timbers are lucky to not give up a second goal on a dangerous free kick. In the stands we groan and worry. It’s a tactical foul, and one done prudently, but it’s naked enough to referee that it’s dangerous, the sort of thing that can lead to a red with an uncharitable referee and leave a team 75 minutes to try to catch up a man down. And then there he is again, redemptive: in injury time, with a delicate cross into the box 10 yards out that Rodney Wallace tucks into the corner with his head and silences most of CenturyLink, leaving the visitors all alone in the empty cavernous 300′s singing.
02/17/2013 Preseason San Jose
Barely 2 minutes in, here he is with his left arm ever so slightly out-stretched as he tries to mark Mike Fucito, who misdirects a first time cross into the aforementioned arm. Just like the end of the season in 2012, Wondolowski tucks the penalty away in front of the North End. Two minutes later Ryan Johnson loops a glancing header over Jon Busch. Jean-Baptiste runs the length of the field to embrace him. I wonder, watching as I am alone from a conference room in Texas, whether he’ll be off on loan again, assessed as not quite ready for MLS for another year yet.
10/29/2012 San Jose
Here he is back after his loan spell at LA Blues, for his first start since the season opener against Philadelphia, bookending the promise of the beginning of the season with a promise of the next season. San Jose is in punishing form, Supporters Shield winners already, Lenhart and Gordon imposing their physicality, throwing themselves into defenders fearlessly and somehow still controlling deft flicks to one another and Wondolowski. ESPN is watching this game because Wondolowski is chasing Roy Lassiters record for most goals in a season and the porous Timbers defense looks like the backdrop for a record-setting. Wondo has 26, Lassiter 27. And then there is Jean-Baptiste, 6’2, 210 pounds, punishing Lenhart, blocking out Wondolowski, chasing back, logging 20 clearances against a team that played almost exclusively in the air. His passing and distribution are varied and intelligent, his speed and strength plainly obvious. He looks like the future and he looks as if he might be given the chance to be so.
There he is in the 51st minute, watching Gabriel Gomez’s free kick sail towards him, tick off of his head in a half-hearted attempt at a clearance, then turning to watch it fly past Troy Perkins. Originally recorded as an own goal, it was given to Gomez, mercifully. And then, again, there he is 3 minutes later meeting a free-kick with a perfectly timed leap and guiding it to the far post where it sneaks under Zac Macmath on the wet turf of Portland in March. And that’s the thing of Andrew Jean-Baptiste: his mistakes are almost always followed by his redemptions. We don’t see this that year though, Baptiste goes to the LA Blues for further development, not to return until the end of the season, Mosquera, Horst, and Futty preferred for the rest of the season. Perhaps it was that initial error or perhaps that was the plan all along, but the pattern one can see there in his first start is the pattern one can see again and again, a learning mistake and a fiery focus born of the need to make amends.
From my limited experience here is how it goes as a defender: you make painful errors that lose your teams points and pride and faith in you and then you have two options: to center, focus, redouble your efforts and carry on, or shrink from the job and vanish. Strikers can score once or twice to retain their place, defenders need but err once or twice to lose theirs. He’s not immune to errors and until very recently he was quietly dreaded for them as much as his raw talent was admired, but as we see more of him, we can he has that tenacious absolute drive that seems to snap him into the right places in games, making crucial blocks and clearances, delivering passes, slipping away from his marker to catch a header.
According to a Merritt Paulson tweet last year, Andrew Jean-Baptiste is the second fastest man on the team, second only to Nagbe. For a man built like a linebacker or rugby player this is no small talent but that is all that is, a talent. That talent though, seems to be matched by a growing intelligence, confidence, and ability to shape not only a backline but a game. I have a theory as to why this seems to be happening so quickly. The thing of the Porter Timbers is that their style and objectives, defined with the kind of clear-eyed conciseness that Porter displays everywhere, allow players to learn and grow because there is a sense of how things are probably going to be that limits the number of wrong moves the team will make or an individual will make within the team. “Style is in limitation” as Helenio Herrera said. The Ricketts of 2012 and Ricketts of now, the Nagbe, the Rodney Wallace. None of these players looked confident in their system, where their team-mates would be, how to anticipate the number of myriad ways things could and would go wrong. With a system, with a style, you have a basis for growth and so you see these players, the younger players in particular, growing and blossoming together, becoming better because they have a structure and confidence in one another in which to learn. And so Andrew Jean-Baptiste goes from a promising player out on loan to now a promising solid defender in the backline, and after Saturdays game, the catalyst of an indelibly ecstatic memory. Will he err again? Almost certainly, but if there’s one thing we can have learned from watching him thus far, it’s that he’ll make amends with all the speed he can muster.