It was a cool night in Couva, by Caribbean standards, but Andrew Jean-Baptiste will forever carry a warm memory of January 6, 2017 in Trinidad: it was the night he scored his first goal at international level.
1st international goal for my country. In T&T. 2017 starting off pretty well. #16 holding it down. I'm keeping that jersey lol pic.twitter.com/EWH5wlWnVc— Andrew Jean-Baptiste (@ajeanbaptiste92) January 7, 2017
The 24-year-old defender was also making his first start for his national team, anchoring the back line on a rainy night at the Ato Boldon Stadium against an opponent - Suriname - buoyed by a surprise 2-1 win over the Soca Warriors just two days earlier. Jean-Baptiste helped Haiti weather some early pressure, most notably with a crucial intervention inside the opening 15 minutes that took the ball off the toes of a Surinamese forward who had nothing left to do but pick which part of the net he wanted to hit.
Once Les Grenadiers settled into the game, they did appear the more likely winners, but so too had the Soca Warriors when they played Suriname. Unlike T&T, Haiti converted ample opportunity into multiple goals. Charles Herold Jr. found the net in the 25th minute. Jean-Baptiste's strike followed in the 42nd. As one might expect of a center-back, he took his chance off a corner.
Unexpectedly, it wasn't a standard crash-the-box CB's set-piece header. A near-post delivery caught the first defender and looped over the scrum of players in the six-yard box. AJB was primed to charge at the far post, but checked his run, tracked the ball in the air, and surprised the defense with a left-footed volley on the turn. The shot zipped by Suriname 'keeper Claidel Kohinor but was blocked by Mitchell Kisoor. From the stands, it seemed the ball might have been stopped on the line, but AJB was looking toward the assistant referee as soon as the shot bounced out of the goalmouth.
"At first, when it left my foot, I thought he was going to clear it off the line," Jean-Baptiste recalled, post-match, "But when I saw it make contact with his foot, I realized his foot was pretty far behind the line. And I was just looking at the linesman to see if he saw what I saw: 'From my angle I saw it; I hope you saw it, buddy.'"
The linesman was indeed AJB's friend on this occasion: the goal stood. Haiti scored twice more in the second half, establishing a 4-0 lead that at least provided sufficient cushion to withstand a spirited Suriname comeback in the closing minutes. The match finished 4-2. Les Grenadiers will play Trinidad and Tobago on January 8 knowing a win - or the right kind of loss (no draws allowed in this CFU tournament) - will take them through to a playoff against a Central American opponent for a place at the 2017 Gold Cup.
AJB wasn't expecting to spend his January helping Les Grenadiers pursue a Gold Cup berth. He was in Haiti's squad for the 2015 edition of the tournament, and won his first cap in October of the same year. But his career has seen a progression of setbacks since around 2014, of which seeming to fall out of favor with his national team's selectors appeared to be merely one of the more recent.
Jean-Baptiste turned pro in 2012, drafted eighth overall by the Portland Timbers. His rookie season brought a handful of MLS appearances and his first goal. In 2013, he got regular starts, playing 26 league games in total for a team that won the Western Conference regular season title and Caleb Porter the MLS Coach of the Year award.
But AJB was traded to Chivas USA in 2014. Hampered by injury, he managed just 10 league appearances for the Goats, who ceased to exist at the end of that season. The Brooklyn-born player was scooped up by the New York Red Bulls in January 2015, getting a little closer to his roots and returning to a club for whom he had played (for RBNY's U-23s) while still in college. But his stint with RBNY was brief: signed in January, he was gone by June with just 45 minutes in US Open Cup (and a few appearances for NYRB II) to show for his time in Harrison.
When AJB was released, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch suggested he might find his way back to RBNY, but that never happened. Instead, Jean-Baptiste turned his attention to Europe - where things got worse for him before they got better.
"I went to Spain, trying to get a work permit out there: I got denied twice. It's almost like losing a year," he told Once A Metro. It was almost like losing more than a year: from being released by RBNY in June 2015 to landing with Swedish club Nykopings BIS in August 2016, AJB essentially endured a 14-month career intermission.
There were Haiti call-ups in that time, and his first cap, but national team interest has a way of drying up when a player isn't getting minutes at club level. Unsurprisingly, Les Grenadiers seemed to turn their attention to other options in the player pool. When the call-ups came for Haiti's current matches, Jean-Baptiste looked to be entirely off the radar: he was not named to the 30-man preliminary roster asked to be ready for the January trip to Trinidad, nor - unsurprisingly - was he on the 20-man squad that was called to actually make the journey.
Instead, he was on holiday back home, returned from warm-weather training in Spain, waiting out Swedish soccer's winter break. After signing with Nykopings BIS last August, AJB told Soedermanlands Nyheter he was hoping to "score five goals and make sure we keep a clean sheet in 10 games" in order to win a contract extension. The extension came in October, before he'd even made 10 appearances for the club. "Every day is a privilege to work with him," said Nykopings BIS head coach John Wall (via Google Translate) when the news was announced.
The club is currently mid-table in the third tier of Swedish pro soccer: Jean-Baptiste is a long way from injury-time winners against LA Galaxy, but he's happy.
"I bounced back," he said, "Reconnected with one of my old coaches I had at UConn. [Brian Clarhaut] He's out in Sweden, he brought me in - I really appreciate that because, you know, I feel like that alone is bouncing back my career at a good level, good country and a possibility to grow. It feels good and mentally it put me in the right state of mind. Coming here, I felt a whole lot better knowing that I had that."
"Here" is Ato Boldon stadium, wearing the jersey of his national team as a starter and goal scorer: a long way from Sweden. A long way even from where he was on the last day of 2016. "I only had been home for two weeks," he said, "And then I got a phone call on New Year's Eve."
It was a Haitian national team exec wishing him a Happy New Year and asking him to join the squad in Trinidad. The next day. 10:00 am flight. "I didn't even hesitate. I was just like: 'let's do it.'"
"I mean, I wasn't going to say no. I've heard people in the past - not to the Haitian national team, but just national teams in general - they say no, but...wow, that's pretty...pretty ballsy."
As his teammates filed past him to board the bus back to the hotel, AJB tapped his chest: "I enjoy playing for my country. Any time I wear this patch, I know I make my family and my country proud."