PORTLAND — If not for an athletic and confident play by Andrew Jean-Baptiste in the late stages of a June 19 match, the Portland Timbers might not have left Los Angeles with a draw.
Robbie Keane, a prolific goal scorer in England and one of the top strikers in Major League Soccer over the year since he joined the Galaxy, was a step past the Portland defense as a long up-field pass reached him inside the penalty area.
But before Keane could turn opportunity in to a goal, Jean-Baptiste recovered to take away the ball.
That game-saving play was a demonstration of the 21-year-old’s talent and determination. It also stands as the most memorable play in what is turning into a breakout season for the second-year Timber.
But that isn’t the most significant moment to date in the mind of Jean-Baptiste.
“That play with Robbie Keane in stoppage time, everybody remembers that one, but I go back to little things like the Houston game where I came in for (David) Horst and we kept the shutout and won 2-0,” Jean-Baptiste said.
After playing in only five games as a rookie last season, Jean-Baptiste didn’t figure to be a mainstay at central defender for the Timbers this season.
In the preseason, center back was the most crowded position on the roster. But season-ending injuries to Horst and Mikael Silvestre and the departure of Hanyer Mosquera thinned the ranks.
Heading into Saturday’s match against Keane and the Galaxy at Jeld-Wen Field, Jean-Baptiste has played significantly more minutes (1,242) this season than other Timbers’ central defender.
He said the chance to play is the only difference between the rookie Jean-Baptiste and the second-year version.
“The only difference is that I’m getting more playing time, which I greatly appreciate,” he said, noting that he badly wanted more action as a rookie. “I’m getting it now, and I’m taking advantage of it, and making sure I keep my starting spot.”
With Pa Modou Kah suspended for today’s match, Jean-Baptiste will certainly make his 13th start and 17th appearance of the season, starting alongside Futty Danso in the middle of the defense. It is a defense that has shut out the last six MLS foes to visit Jeld-Wen Field.
Like the team as a whole, Jean-Baptiste emphasizes that he hasn’t yet accomplished anything significant. His goal is to lock down a spot in the lineup so that coaches see him as their best option no matter who is healthy.
Regular playing time has helped his confidence, but it isn’t something he takes for granted.
Veterans Silvestre, Danso and Kah — and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts — have helped Jean-Baptiste get his footing. But he understands that to keep playing he must stand on his own.
“Regardless of who I play next to, they all have the experience,” he said. “But I still need to be vocal. I can’t just hide in their shadow just because I’m a young guy. They know I’m young, but they still expect more out of me as if I was the guy that was over 30 and had played many years in the league.”
As he approaches another battle with the crafty Keane, a player Jean-Baptiste remembers watching before he became serious about soccer, isn’t about to be star-struck.
“I need to do my job regardless of who I’m playing against,” Jean-Baptiste said. “They’re amazing players, but I have a job to fulfill and I make sure I take care of that.”