Andrew Jean-Baptiste didn't advertise the fact that he'd be starting his first Major League Soccer game.
When friends and family back east asked if he'd play during Portland's season-opening match against Philadelphia on Monday night, the Timbers rookie defender was rather coy in response.
"I just said, 'I don't know, just watch the game and find out,'" said Jean-Baptiste, whose mother, Violet Smith, was in the stands at Jeld-Wen Field to witness her son score his first professional goal and help Portland to a rousing 3-1 victory over the Union in PTFC's regular-season opener. "I know she's probably somewhere, calling my aunts, my brother, my dad, people back in Haiti. I'm sure I'm going to get a dozen calls tonight."
And it only took three minutes for those calls to change from condolences to congratulations.
Click past the jump for more on the match, plus full video of coach John Spencer's post-match presser.
After heading in an own-goal in the 51st minute (a score that was inexplicably changed to credit Philly's Gabriel Gomez) Jean-Baptiste didn't let the disappointment of scoring on his own side stick in his head too long.
In fact, he stuck out his neck and almost immediately scored one for his side: Portland's top SuperDraft pick equalized in the 54th minute, with a header off a Cap'n Jack Jewsbury free kick that both tied the game and sparked the Timbers to a runaway second half.
"As soon as that goal went in, we hit a switch and that's when we got our groove back and started playing," Jean-Baptiste said.
Twelve minutes later, Kris Boyd scored his first MLS goal. Ten minutes after that, it was Kalif Alhassan, scoring his first-ever MLS regular season goal as a Timber. Last season, Portland was a dreadful 0-13-4 after falling behind by a goal. This year, it appears we have a different team on our hands.
"We had good heart last year," said Timbers defender Eric Brunner. "But I think this year we have some maturity since we've been in situations like that."
Of course, none of those situations resulted in a dominating victory, which is just what 20,438 fans—most ever for an MLS match—were treated to as Portland kicked off its sophomore season in style. Timbers Army sang the anthem, there was a stadium-wide tifo display, and in a development that was rare last year, the level of play on the field matched the cheering off of it.
"It was magnificent from start to finish," Boyd said about the fans. "I think it's the biggest compliment you can pay. Even when we went a goal down, they were still behind us, still singing."
Boyd, the multi-million-dollar striker brought in to the Rose City to finish those very scoring chances, called his first MLS goal "the hardest one to get," despite fact that Scotsman made the nonchalant header look easier than Shepherd's Pie. Spencer, a fellow Scot, didn't grade Boyd's degree of difficulty, painting the goal more as a foundation for things to come.
"I think he’s going to end up building a house with all the logs that he will get," Spencer quipped post-game. "I’m hoping that he can go on, stay healthy, go on to score a lot of goals and become a legend here."
Such status may also need to be reserved for MLS Player of the Week Alhassan, whose floating chip-shot reminded everyone of his similarly struck goal against AIK, and all the familar attempts he put forth last season. So, Kalif, was it a shot or a cross?
"I would say I was trying to chip it," Alhassan said. "But I got it."
Fair enough—I doubt anyone clad in rain-soaked green garb much minded what Alhassan's intent was. His goal signaled not only that that the route was on (in soccer terms, at least), but that perhaps this edition of the Timbers have what it takes to get past the mental issues that plagued Portland all of last season—when yielding an opposing goal virtually pulled a comeback win off the table.
First test passed with flying colors, now Portland must tackle its next 2011 demon: Taking their show on the road. The Timbers went a lowly 2-9-6 away from home last season, a trend that can't hold up should Portland hope to reach the postseason in a tough Western Conference.
"It's always tough traveling, I just think we need to come out and play our game," said midfielder Eric Alexander. "Even though the environment isn't the same, the game's the same."
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