Andrew Jean-Baptiste joined Chivas USA in the offseason, coming over in a trade from the Portland Timbers in exchange for Jorge Villafaña. It was tough to lose Sueño, the longest-tenured player on the roster, but at least the center back had considerable upside and seemed like he could really become a contributor to the Goats.
Alas, injuries and options ahead of him derailed the 22-year-old's season, as he missed all of May and June after undergoing surgery on a sports hernia. From there, he got a short run in August and the start of September, but could never establish a position on the backline as his own.
I have to admit, I expected Jean-Baptiste to supplant Bobby Burling as the starter alongside Carlos Bocanegra, and have a young-old/fast-slow partnership for 2014. But Burling never let go of the starter's role, except when he was dealing with injury himself, and AJB fell below Eriq Zavaleta early in the season on the CB depth chart. I do think Zavaleta looked pretty decent, and for the most part, showed better than Jean-Baptiste when they got time on the field (including time together).
But if Jean-Baptiste was hurt, was that the issue? There have been reports around MLS that he's immature and that was a big reason why Portland shipped him out, despite being their Generation adidas SuperDraft pick (at No. 8 overall) in 2012. There are always draft picks that don't work out, but Jean-Baptiste played quite a bit his second season, and yet he was still shown the door pretty fast.
Here were AJB's statistics in 2014 with the Goats:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|MLS Regular Season||10||8||731||0||1||8||0||2||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
I have a few potential mitigating factors for AJB's down season, and it was not a good season overall. Besides the injury, which can halt any player's progress, much less a youngster adjusting to a new team, CUSA coach Wilmer Cabrera turned to Jean-Baptiste on occasion as a left back, and it very much looked like a player in a new position in a pinch. That's not to say that he couldn't adjust his game to become a fullback, but putting him in that position in a sink or swim situation isn't always going to be a rousing success, and he didn't take to it immediately.
Also, despite the talk about his immaturity, Jean-Baptiste was one of the best players at making an effort with fans. Whether on social media or applauding supporters and shaking hands after games, this third-year pro did a hell of a lot more to maintain a relationship with fans than the majority of his teammates. I think a lot of that probably comes from his experience in Portland, where acknowledging the fans, a big part of that club's success, is compulsory. Still, regardless of where he got that, the fact that he made a concerted effort to thank the fans for coming to games and interacting with them on social media, even when times were bad, means he deserves props, for sure.
On the field, though, Jean-Baptiste endured a difficult year, only getting to participate in a single win all season, and hardly seeing action most of the way. He was rather surprisingly not taken in the Dispersal Draft last month, nor was he picked up in the Waiver Draft earlier this week. What does that mean?
It seems to me like he's probably going to have to trial with a team before they'll sign him, first to ensure he's healthy and also to make sure he'll be a good fit in the locker room and such. He'll be like a bunch of his Goats teammates in that regard, certainly, since being on a team that became a perennial loser by its last season can make it tough for teams to really see the upside of a player's game.
I've been writing this quite a bit lately, but it seems to me that 2015 is a crucial year for AJB. I certainly think he has what it takes to stay in MLS, and I think with the right coach, he can potentially blossom into a terrific defender. But he's got to find the right situation, and probably also see some luck come his way (stay healthy, lose a starter ahead of him for a time) in order for things to work out.
Jean-Baptiste won't necessarily become a star in 2015. He may never turn into a star. But he's only 22, he's an American, and he's got the physical tools and some experience as an MLS player. The world should be his oyster, and hopefully he can bounce back from a down 2014 quickly.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!