24 Under 24: #16 Andrew Jean-Baptiste steps up, excels for Portland Timbers in their time of dire need

PORTLAND, Ore. – When Andrew Jean-Baptiste scored a stoppage-time game-winning goal earlier this season against the LA Galaxy, the young center back had obviously not yet been to the school of media clichés.

Jean-Baptiste celebrated the winning header with an understandably impassioned outburst in which he ripped off his jersey and stood, arms outstretched, screaming in front of the Timbers Army. But it was when he was asked about his celebration in the locker room after the game, when the 21-year-old’s answer basically said all you need to know about Jean-Baptiste’s personality.

“Game winner, nice body, why not,” he said at the time.

It’s that outward confidence that Jean-Baptiste has become known for in his two years in the Rose City. But now in his first season receiving regular playing time since the Timbers took him eighth overall in the 2012 SuperDraft out of the University of Connecticut, Jean-Baptiste is also becoming known for his play as one of MLS’ best young center backs, making his debut on the 2013 24 Under 24 list at No. 16.

And while Jean-Baptiste may be brimming with confidence and personality off the field, he said he makes a point to stay humble and open to instruction on it.

“Overconfidence can actually make a good player real bad,” Jean-Baptiste told MLSsoccer.com. “You have to play with a chip on your shoulder, but at the same time you have to know what your job is. And there are times when I maybe came out overconfident or not confident enough. And obviously I’m still leaning that, I’m still young into my career and obviously I’m getting better at it.”

That willingness to learn can be traced back to his days learning the game from his parents, who immigrated to New York from Haiti before Jean-Baptiste was born.

He grew up playing against his older brother, Randy, who is six years older and went on to play at the University of Bridgeport, a Division II school in Connecticut. From that point on, Jean-Baptiste said he’s always tried to play ahead of his level to constantly push himself.

“I always used that to my advantage of just always being around people who are older than me because they know from their experience and knowledge,” he said.

That carries over to his role now as the Timbers youngest regular starter, thrust into the position partially due to a rash of injuries but one he is unlikely to relinquish. His backline counterpart since his acquisition in May, Pa Modou Kah, is 33 years old, a former Norwegian international and a veteran of top-flight leagues in Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.

“You sit down and listen to what they have to say because they know a lot and they’ve seen a lot,” Jean-Baptiste said.

And Jean-Baptiste is the first to admit he still has a lot to learn. Because if there is one overarching criticism when it comes to Jean-Baptiste’s game, it has to do with the fact that his mental game is still evolving, manifesting in an occasional lapse in concentration or incorrect decision.

“He still has work to do,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “But we certainly like where he’s at.”

It’s the upside in his game that has turned people’s heads. Supremely athletic and physical, to go along with his imposing frame (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), Jean-Baptiste is rarely overmatched.

“There are a few things I still wish I could change individually that affected the team collectively,” he said. “Just in-game situations, things I could have cleaned up a whole lot better and done better considering what coach knows I’m capable of. And just some things that happened in games, whether it’s my passing, a tackle or a challenge, if I don’t come out on top and I come out losing, it’s frustrating.”

Once the mental aspect of his game comes around, there’s no telling what Jean-Baptiste can accomplish. And that’s where his confidence comes back into the picture.

“The most important thing is what you put down on the field, and that’s something I’ve learned along the way is that you let your feet do the talking,” he said. “I’m just a confident guy because that’s just how my personality is, outgoing and stuff. You don’t have to say much when you come off a good game.”

And Jean-Baptiste said his game still has a lot more talking to do. An avid European soccer fan, he said he’s actually behind where he would like to be career-wise. He said this season is just part of a planned trajectory to end up playing for a top-flight club overseas.

“I look at starting on the first team as a big accomplishment, and it is, but there are guys in Europe who have been doing that since they were 17,” he said. “My main focus is to hit that level. I feel like if I work hard maybe one day I can get there. … I dreamed that when I was younger, and I’m still going for it. I’m not done; I’m just getting started.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.