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Looking back and looking forward with Andrew Jean-Baptiste

2017 has started with a bang for Andrew Jean-Baptiste. He talks about scoring match-winners for Haiti, his time at RBNY, and why he is looking forward to playing Hammarby.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

"I'm a complicated man," says Andrew Jean-Baptiste, at home in New York, watching Chelsea play Leicester on TV, about a week away from heading back to Sweden to make ready for returning to current club Nykopings BIS after the winter break.

What's complicated is that he counts himself both a Chelsea fan and an Arsenal fan. "The first game I ever saw was Arsenal vs Chelsea, and I couldn't choose between them. Thierry Henry was my favorite forward, John Terry my favorite defender. It's hard twice a year, but I deal with it."

AJB has been dealing with quite a lot recently. His winter break from soccer in Sweden was interrupted by an unexpected call-up to the Haiti men's national team. On New Year's Day, Jean-Baptiste flew to Trinidad to join Les Grenadiers for a mini-tournament to decide the fifth-placed team in the 2017 Caribbean Cup - a status that would afford a second chance at qualifying for the 2017 Gold Cup. The 24-year-old has been regularly called to Haiti's senior squad over the past couple of years, but only had one cap to show for those efforts. By January 8, he had two more caps and two international goals - one against Suriname and the match-winner in the 4-3 victory over Trinidad and Tobago that ensured Les Grenadiers would get to play for that shot at appearing in this summer's CONCACAF showpiece.

Since he netted Haiti's fourth and decisive goal against T&T, Jean-Baptiste has been fielding inquiries from the Haitian press as a nation gets to know the 24-year-old center back who helped put the senior men's team back on track to qualify for a major international tournament . "Now people know my name," says AJB, well aware that Haitian football fans aren't watching a lot of Swedish Division One (third tier) soccer.

Nor is Jean-Baptiste all that accustomed to the attention: "When I got home, it hit me. I had friends telling me 'You really made your country proud.' At first I didn't think about it like that, but then I was It was kind of surreal."

The game itself was somewhat surreal: a seven-goal scrap that saw the Soca Warriors open the scoring in the first minute and AJB end it in the 117th. "That's the fastest I've ever been scored on," he recalls, "This is the first minute, and I thought we're going to be in for a long 90 minutes." It turned into a longer 120 minutes. In the time it took Haiti to recover from T&T's first punch, it crossed Jean-Baptiste's mind that the game might simply end 1-0 to the home team. "But I looked around and I knew not one person in the stands...," he catches himself - the stands at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva were the property of a red-shirted crowd of fans cheering for the home team -"I knew not one person on the field or the bench would accept that."

As a center-back, AJB's primary concern about the game was that it had too many goals in it: "A goal is cool and all, but a defender takes pride in his clean sheets." The clean sheet was off the table after the first minute, and each side struggled to contain the other's attack. A center back through and through, AJB even breaks down the goal he scored in terms of defensive tactics: "I'm iffy on zonal [marking] on corner kicks. At least pick up the big guys and zone out the rest," he says, as he thinks through the build-up to his match-winner. "They went straight zone, and I like that - it gives me space to run. If I get a run at the ball in the air, I'm going to win it."

He made eye-contact with set-piece taker and all-around playmaker Charles Herold, "and he was on the same page". AJB got into his nominal marker's blind spot and took the space he needed to meet the ball at the back post. With three minutes left to find three goals (T&T needed to win by two to win the tournament), the Soca Warriors were finally beaten.

"Everybody was ecstatic: jumping, dancing, music was going. That's how our culture is: we celebrate," says Jean-Baptiste of the post-game mood in the camp. Les Grenadiers' squad in general, and the one assembled in Trinidad in particular, is a mix of Haitian-born and diaspora players. Some speak the country's Creole, some don't; some prefer to speak French, some don't; some, like Jean-Baptiste, speak English as their first language and have a limited understanding of the other languages in the dressing room. But the spirit in the squad transcends such matters: "It's a great group of guys. Everybody is getting along with everybody. The chemistry is great."

Jean-Baptiste hopes to be involved in Haiti's next big challenge, the playoff for a Gold Cup spot against the fifth-best team from the 2017 Copa Centroamericana. But he appreciates the experience for what it was and knows there are no guarantees: "Nothing is given, you have to earn it and then keep it."

Keeping it comes with consistent performances at club level to earn call-ups that must then be justified with solid play for the national team. Jean-Baptiste is looking forward to getting back to Sweden and Nykopings BIS. Though the club is currently in the lower reaches of Swedish soccer, there is a big match on the schedule as soon as the season gets underway. "We qualified for Swedish Cup, we play Hammarby on February 18: the best team in Sweden - that's a game to make a statement in, and that's what I am going to try to do."

He's settled in well at Bissarna. Signed in August, in October AJB got a two-year contract with the club. It has been a while since he had the security of a contract and regular starts. Between being released by the New York Red Bulls in the summer of 2015 and signing for Nykopings BIS, Jean-Baptiste spent the better part of a year not getting a work permit to play for a club in Spain. In that time, he had opportunity to quit the European soccer scene and head back to the USA, but he determined to stick it out: "There were options for me to come back, but I felt I had put one foot in the door - might as well go all the way through."

He got all the way through the door thanks to Brian Clarhaut - once a coach at UConn, AJB's alma mater, and now at Bissarna - and his own mother. "My mom is a big supporter/manager/agent for me," he says, "She helped me get to Sweden. My mom's the best."

He won't turn 25 until June, but Jean-Baptiste has moved around a lot since he turned pro in 2012: starting out with Portland Timbers, then on to Chivas USA in 2014, RBNY in 2015, the unsuccessful effort to play in Spain taking up much of 2016, now looking forward to a long stint in Sweden. He watched this year's MLS SuperDraft with a veteran's eye, advising the league's latest crop of draftees to "work hard - at the end of the day, that's what they want you to do".

Remembering his own Draft experience, AJB says he was "confused at the Combine". Unable to quite figure out whether teams were scheduling meetings with him as a potential signing or for "other things", he resolved to simply let his soccer talk for him. He was picked #8 overall by the Timbers, where he became a regular starter for coach Caleb Porter in his second season with the team. "Working hard and stats: that's all you need," is his advice to the 2017 MLS rookies, "Your stats [headers, clearances, goals etc.] stay with you, the hard work gets you on the field."

Jean-Baptiste chose to pursue a career in Europe after being released by RBNY, but that doesn't mean he has turned his back on US soccer or MLS. Far from it. He still follows the Red Bulls closely enough that when he saw Kemar Lawrence pop up as a central defender during the worst of the team's 2016 back-line injury crisis, he thought, "Should I come back? I see your outside backs are center backs."

If you blinked, you missed AJB's time as a Red Bull. He joined the team in January, 2015 and was gone before the end of June. He played 45 minutes in US Open Cup for the first team, getting most of his playing time in USL with NYRB II. But he remembers the short stint with RBNY fondly, "Just in my six months [with the club], I learned a lot from the guys on the team and the coaching staff."

Being a back-up isn't the easiest gig. AJB's days at RBNY were mostly spent playing against the first-choice attacking unit: "Defending against Bradley [Wright-Phillips], [Lloyd] Sam, [Sacha] Kljestan and Mike Grella, every day in training. Those training sessions - every day I was learning something." He admits it wasn't always a treat - "Some days you wake up and think 'Oh crap, I have to go mark those guys.'" - but he values the experience: "I am proud to say I stepped on the same field as those guys, because they are high class."

He credits the chance to test himself against BWP as one of the more valuable lessons of his time with RBNY. "It's his movement," he says by way of explaining what it is that makes Wright-Phillips such a handful for defenders. "Over the years, I got accustomed to marking the big, strong guys, or the crafty ones with pace. But he has so much soccer IQ. He drops into places you just don't expect. His finishing is phenomenal, but it's his movement that puts the ball at his feet."

He also enjoyed the chance to play alongside fellow New York soccer product Mike Grella. "He's a true footballer," says AJB approvingly, "He's my brother's age, I grew up playing pick-up games with him. I've seen him playing indoors, I see him just having fun - and I see his movement on the ball and think this guy is incredible. When Cosmos and NYCFC passed up on him, I'm like 'Are you guys serious?'"

Fortunately for Jean-Baptiste, Cosmos and NYCFC were serious and Grella was instead signed up to join Jesse Marsch's squad. AJB counts the Red Bull's 1000th goal of all time - the stunning chip with which Grella introduced himself to MLS - as a highlight of his time at the club that he will never forget.

Asked for his personal highlight of his six months as a Red Bull, he offers two. The first being a surprising nomination: "In preseason, they threw a pie in my face during an interview." Say what? "The staff made clear they wouldn't do it to someone who wasn't chill enough to deal with it. And since so many of them have been there quite a long time, it made me feel part of the Red Bull legacy at that moment."

The second is Tournament Day, a training-ground ritual often mentioned since Marsch arrived at the Red Bulls and which the head coach makes no claim to have invented. But AJB hasn't seen much like it before or since his time at RBNY: "That's a Red Bull thing. My team in Sweden does it a bit, but that is also the only team I've played on where everyone wears shin guards in practice - and that is for a reason. That kind of scared me."

No such fear of RBNY's Tournament Day for AJB, mostly because all he remembers is winning. With the squad divided into four teams that go through round-robin and knockout stages to determine a champion, the idea is to generate a regular outlet for the players' competitive drive to be expressed. "My teams always finished first or second," says AJB with the confidence of a man who knows there is no one around to say different. He's the unofficial king of RBNY Tournament Day? "That's for sure. Without a doubt," he laughs.

He has a lasting admiration for Jesse Marsch, in whom he sees a similarity to his first head coach in the pros, Caleb Porter: "They both have a very specific style of play, and they don't change it for anyone."

In the case of Marsch, AJB remembers "pressing really high, the highest I've ever pressed with a team, and it worked out great." The system looks hard on center backs, but Jean-Baptiste doesn't see it that way: "It leaves you a little exposed, because you leave about 40 yards of space and the other team can just drop the ball into it. But I don't mind a foot race."

He sees the tactics have changed slightly more recently, with the back line taking a less aggressive stance than it was asked to do when Marsch first arrived at RBNY. AJB appreciated the challenge at the time because it seemed to be a mark of the coach's confidence in his defenders, but he notes "that back line has changed a lot" since 2015, and tweaks in tactics are to be expected as personnel and circumstances change.

Particular ideas and instructions from Marsch have stuck with Jean-Baptiste: "Like winning over 50% of the other team's throw-ins. Why? Because teams don't expect to defend at that moment, they expect to keep possession [so it's an ideal moment for a counter-attack with the defense potentially out of position]. He didn't put it that way to the team at the time, but that's how I broke it down. I sat there, thinking it through, and I was like 'wow, Jesse Marsch is one of the tactical geniuses of MLS.'"

Six months isn't a long time, even in the brief careers of professional athletes, but one gets the impression AJB will be carrying more than a few ideas from his time at RBNY into what he hopes will be a career in coaching once his playing days are done. Indeed, he still watches the Red Bulls regularly: "It's a good system, and Jesse Marsch is the right coach for it," he says before adding, "But I am tired of Red Bull getting knocked out in the playoffs."

Wait. He still watches the team, keeps up with its results, cares about those results: is he not just a former player but a fan? He laughs: "Remember I said I was complicated?"

Jean-Baptiste counts his injury-time match-winner against LA Galaxy for Portland Timbers as the absolute highlight of his career to date. "I can't lie. A lot of the fans and I still talk about it," he says, adding Portland is the first team he played for as a pro, the place he got his start. But he's a Brooklyn-born soccer player, for whom the MetroStars and subsequently Red Bulls were his local MLS team. "Red Bull was always a team I wanted to play for," he says. And though he only got 45 minutes against Atlanta Silverbacks in US Open Cup, he did fulfill that dream.

So yes, he is a Red Bulls fan. And he is a Timbers fan. "Both teams. Thankfully, they don't play in the same conference so I don't have to worry about it much," says Andrew Jean-Baptiste, a cool-headed, complicated man.