On the flight home from Real Salt Lake’s 3-2 win over LAFC in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, an exhausted Corey Baird tried to rest near the front of the team’s chartered plane. With his San Diego Padres hat pulled down over his eyes failing to block out the buzz of his teammates still lingering in the air and visions of RSL’s victory and the upcoming matchup with Sporting Kansas City.
Then RSL Head Coach Mike Petke walked down the aisle of the plane and asked for a word with the rookie forward. The two walked to the back of the plane for a quiet chat and that’s where Baird learned that he would be named the 2018 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year.
Suddenly, his energy was rejuvenated and he couldn’t hide his jubilation from his teammates.
For a player that only envisioned playing a few games at the MLS level and making contributions where he could in his first professional season, winning a league-wide award was far from on his mind when he signed with Real Salt Lake before the season.
“The year has really taken off in a way I’ve never expected and never could have seen coming,” Baird said. “I think that’s down to the guys on the team welcoming me and the coaching staff making it easy for me to integrate myself into the team.”
Baird is quick to credit his teammates for creating an environment in the locker room that enabled him to succeed from the beginning. That list includes the MLS veterans that have been through the rigors of the league and seen how to integrate players and teammates with international experience that viewed him as a piece of the puzzle and not just a young player that needed to earn his stripes.
It also included several players that he has known for years.
A product of the Real Salt Lake Academy, he had already played dozens of games with players like Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo, Brooks Lennon and others who climbed the ranks of RSL’s pyramid to earn their own voices in the RSL locker room. More than teammates, these were longtime friends who ensured that the camaraderie that existed in the desert of Casa Grande, Arizona, translated to the pro level.
“I came in with seven great friends already. It made it so I had a comfort zone,” Baird said. “Not only that, but the veterans on the team are inclusive and very helpful with advice and encouragement. I think the club does a great job of integrating new guys. That was enormous for me and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Playing alongside a talented crop of young players under the guidance of Martin Vasquez and Freddy Juarez at the RSL Academy helped nurture his skills at an early age. His evolution from talented youth player to the professional level was sheparded along in his four seasons at Stanford, though.
In Palo Alto, he continued to share a locker room with future pros like U.S. National Team players Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent and MLS signees Tomas Hilliard-Arce and Foster Langsdorf. Together, they won three consecutive NCAA national championships, making history in the process. And while Head Coach Jeremy Gunn continued to foster growth in his on-field talents, it was his maturation off the field that was key to his transition to the pro ranks.
“I learned a lot through some difficult times that hard work is going to be the cornerstone of what makes you a good player,” Baird said. “If you’re not going to work hard, unless you’re the most talented guy out there, it’s not going to happen. A lot of times, you’re not going to be the most talented player. I learned how to work, put my head down and become more of a humble guy. I think I grew up a lot during those four years.”
Baird eased his way into playing time with Real Salt Lake. After not playing in the first two matches, he saw his first league action as a substitute in a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, handing a rare loss to the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners for the best regular season record. Two weeks later, he came on as a sub again against the defending MLS Cup champions, Toronto FC, and scored his first MLS goal.
From that point on, he became a regular starter for Petke’s club, stretching the defense with his pace and energy up top while Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata worked to create chances and fill the lanes opened up by Baird’s runs. Over the next three months, he started in 18 of the next 21 matches while appearing off the bench in the other three – more games than he played in his senior season at Stanford when he had six goals and seven assists in 18 games for the Cardinal. In that stretch, he scored four goals to go with two assists, but also hit the proverbial rookie wall, going a full month without scoring after his fifth goal of the season on July 4 in a win over Sporting Kansas City.
“I had to take a look at myself and see what I was doing at the beginning of the year that I’m not doing now,” he said. “I focused on what got me to the team in the first place and not looking too far ahead. It really shows the confidence they have in me and the trust they have in me.”
Baird bounced back with three goals and three assists in his final seven matches, including games that saw him tally one goal and two assists in a 6-0 win over the Colorado Rapids on August 25 and one goal and one assist in a 4-1 win over the New England Revolution in the regular season home finale on October 18.
Now a key contributor for RSL, the MLS Rookie of the Year has his sights set on helping RSL on another deep playoff run. After already advancing past LAFC, RSL drew 1-1 with Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Now with a week to prepare for the second leg, RSL has a chance to reach the Conference Finals for the fourth time in club history. Kickoff from Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday is set for 1 p.m. MT (ESPN).