The past year has been a tornado for Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird.
Despite winning three consecutive NCAA College Cups, he was widely unheralded coming into his first professional season. Fast forward to this week and he returned to RSL from his first camp with the U.S. National Team, earning two starts during Gregg Berhalter’s first two matches as head coach while toting the club credentials of winning 2018 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year honors while helping RSL to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Now in his first week of RSL training camp in Honolulu, Hawaii, after a month with the U.S., he can only shake his head and smile when his accomplishments from the last 12 months and his meteoric rise are laid out in front of him.
“It all came so fast,” Baird grinned with a simple explanation. “I just keep reevaluating myself as I go. Coming into preseason I just wanted to get some minutes. Then I made my debut and I just wanted to keep making the rosters. Then I started a game and I had to figure out how to hold down a starting spot. If I wasn’t starting, how can I be an impact sub? Knowing my role within the team I was trying to do as well there as I can. If you’re doing good things for the team, then good things are going to happen for you too.”
This week, he joined his club with an ever-growing confidence after slowly growing accustomed to Berhalter’s coaching style and adapting to the style that he wanted to play. Surrounded by some experienced players for the Stars and Stripes, he soaked up every bit of knowledge and every experience he could to benefit him in growing as a player just as he did with his RSL teammates throughout the 2018 season.
The result was a similar rise in stature within the U.S. camp and when Berhalter drew up the starting lineup in the first match against Panama, Baird was elated to see his name listed and he brings that confidence with him in his return to RSL.
“My play got better and better as camp went on. I wasn’t as timid. I was more confident in the group. As that went on, I felt a sense of belonging a lot more than I did in the beginning,” he said. “It gives me a lot of confidence that I can hang with those guys and I belong here. I have a chance to really make a name for myself with RSL and I’m looking build off that and continue to push forward in 2019.”
Not only did Baird feature prominently on the field for the U.S., but with his connections to the Phoenix area after playing with the RSL Academy and the Bay Area, where he played collegiately at nearby Stanford, he also became something of a media darling in the buildup to the two matches for the U.S.
With all of the accolades pouring his way, Petke wouldn’t be wrong to try to shield the budding 22-year-old from his newfound attention. However, the RSL coach knows Baird’s character and personality will allow him to flourish in the spotlight even while in thick competition for playing time with Real Salt Lake and the national team.
With that rising tide, RSL’s level of play will only be elevated.
“We have some pretty talented players on this team. There is going to be competition. One thing that we really talked about a lot with a guy like Corey is he needs to play. Is he going to be a 34-game starter? I can tell the odds right now are 99% no, along with many of the players, if not all on this roster,” Petke said. “The challenge that I have – and my staff – is that we recognize how special Corey is as a young player and the opportunity that he has and we want to keep him going towards more opportunities like that and the way that’s going to happen is if he plays. Figuring that out is a priority for us.”
RSL takes on Iwaki FC at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Friday in the first of two matches of the Pacific Rim Cup. After the second match on Sunday, the team departs for Tucson, Arizona, for the final leg of preseason. In Arizona, RSL will play four matches in the final preparations for the MLS regular season opener on March 2 on the road against the Houston Dynamo.