Coming out of last weekend's 1-1 draw at Chivas USA, Caleb Porter spoke bluntly about several players' casual approach to the game. While refraining from identifying those who drew his ire, there was a sense that changes in the line-up against Colorado Rapids might reflect Porter's frustration in Los Angeles. When the starting XI was unveiled an hour before kick off against the Rapids, sure enough, there were three changes. Of those three, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Sal Zizzo and Jose Adolfo Valencia, one stood out: Jean-Bapitste.
Removing Zizzo made perfect sense as he was playing out of position at right back while Jack Jewsbury and Alvas Powell recovered from ankle injuries. With Jewsbury healthy enough to play, and facing a team with a dangerous left back in Chris Klute, Porter's decision to re-insert Jewsbury was an obvious choice. Up top, any of the three forwards - Valencia, Ryan Johnson or Maximiliano Urruti - had benefits or drawbacks given recent form, fitness and opponent. While most would not have predicted Urruti would make his starting debut, the decision seems to have been more about the new signing than about anything Valencia was doing wrong.
That leaves Jean-Baptiste for examination. The 21-year-old had started eighteen of the previous nineteen games, including the last thirteen in a row. With Futty Danso out with a foot injury since late July and David Horst and Mikael Silvestre rehabilitating long-term leg injuries, there was little option but to use Jean-Bapitste throughout the summer. To be fair, the second year center back has been good most of the season. But when Porter spoke last weekend, one did not even need to have seen the Chivas match to know who he was talking about:
"I thought in the first half we were a bit casual, for whatever reason. We worked hard all week to prepare for a team that's much better than their record. We stressed that all week, and we certainly stressed it before the game. I think in some way, for whatever reason, we didn't play, not everybody, but a few guys, with the urgency, the sharpness, the focus, the hunger that they needed to.
"There was a bit of casualness at times out of our play. They're professionals and they understand that part of being a professional is showing up with the right mentality. Listen, if they don't, we're going to continue to be at the end of games feeling like we're feeling right now."
Jean-Baptiste has a knack for getting a bit loose in his play at the back, both in marking and when on the ball. In large part, that is due to his supreme athleticism and fitness. His physical gifts allow Jean-Bapitste to recover more quickly than most other defenders in MLS. When he combines his natural abilities and instincts with focused play, he is one of the top young center backs in the league. But when he relies only on that athleticism and is either ill prepared or overcompensating for loose play, Jean-Bapitste gets in trouble.
This isn't to say that Jean-Bapitste is a bad player at all. Only that it seems Porter has identified an area for improvement - namely in professional maturity. For that characteristic to grow in Jean-Baptiste, it could be fairly argued that he needs more time on the field and in the game. Without any serious competition due to the injury crisis at his position, Jean-Bapitste has not faced the weekly challenge of earning his starting spot in the way that a young player would surely benefit from. No doubt he is talented enough to play, but with the increasingly importance of each game down the stretch for the Timbers, perhaps Porter will choose to leave Jean-Baptiste in the game day roster but out of the starting XI.
Consider Porter's comments after the win against Colorado, remembering of course that he would always have better things to say about a victory than a lack of one:
"Especially in the back, we went with some of our old guards. We went with Futty and Jack. These guys have been professionals for quite some time and they've got some maturity to them and they've got some experience to them and they're comfortable in the Timbers uniform. I thought those two guys, and Michael Harrington, PaKah and Donovan Ricketts really showed very well tonight. They looked mature and put up a clean sheet."
With LA Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake coming in the next four weeks, how would playing more inexperienced players make sense, given Porter's comments above? The easy argument to make is point out his use of Urruti (or Valencia recently), or Porter's previous inclusion of Powell at right back. But as September ends and October begins, and the consideration of long-term benefit comes face-to-face with the need for immediate success, Porter's decision making processes might just change. And if they do, the return of Danso, with Horst just around the corner, could mean Jean-Baptiste might not feature quite as much as he's been used to in this 2013 season.
After all, Jean-Baptiste only just turned 21 this summer. He has plenty of time ahead of him to grow, and a case could be made that some maturity can be gained through taking a seat. It would be difficult to argue that his time on loan at LA Blues last season did not provide some humility for a teenager who started opening night and scored the team's first goal of 2012. That seems a world away now, but represents that delicate balance Porter must manage.
In the meantime, as Jewsbury explained after the Rapids game, now is the time for caution, not necessarily experimentation:
"The reality is for guys that have been around this league, when you get down to the final five, six, seven games, games don't always settle down as much. Teams are pressing to get points. They were pressing us on our defensive end so we went long and they went the same so it became a battle for second balls and trying to turn over the other team in bad areas. We didn't want to be caught where they took it off us in bad situations, and I thought we did a fairly good job of that."
Maybe sitting for one game was all Jean-Bapitste needed to realize that this part of the season is too important to be casual and risky. Porter could have made his point and send Jean-Bapitste back into the XI against the Galaxy on Sunday. Or perhaps now is the time where having an average defensive age of 30.5 (or 31.6 if Ricketts is included) and 646 games of combined MLS experience can be utilized to secure the Timbers their first MLS playoff position.