When Real Salt Lake rookie forward Corey Baird first entered the team’s preseason training, he was expecting to fight for Major League Soccer minutes while perfecting his craft with the team’s United Soccer League affiliate, Real Monarchs.
But Baird quickly impressed RSL manager Mike Petke with a few qualities he values in young players. He received his first chance in an MLS game on March 17 — and in the next game, he scored his first professional goal.
Twenty-one starts, eight goals and five assists later, Baird is the 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year.
“When I came in, I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me and we had a lot of good attacking options,” Baird said. “I just wanted to see if I could work my way into the team and hopefully I could get some games, but I was expecting for the majority of the time to be playing for Monarchs.”
Petke said the first thing that stuck out about Baird was his attitude and work rate.
“On any day, whether it’s Monday training or the day after a game where he played 90 minutes, he works his ass off and he looks to put pressure on people,” Petke said. “He loves the pacy transition game and he has skills and talents with the ball.
“Right away, we had expectations of him — not to the extent of what he played out this year, but right away we knew we had a kid from the first day we have to challenge at a number of positions.”
Baird was the benefactor of the trust Petke and the entire RSL organization has in its Homegrown players.
RSL led MLS in Homegrown minutes played at 10,826, which equates to 32.16 percent of the club’s first-team minutes.
“For a team with a setup and structure like we have, it’s extremely vital and important, that’s why you see so many Homegrowns playing here,” Petke said. “They have to earn it. I’m not just going to give the academy players minutes, they have to earn them, and Corey certainly earned it this year.”
Baird’s path was different than his fellow RSL academy products. He opted to go to Stanford University out of high school, a move the 22-year-old believes was beneficial to his growth.
“I think it was pretty big for me growing up,” Baird said. “I definitely think through high school I was on a lot of national team radars, so I kind of thought the whole professional thing was going to happen, it’ll come to me, and things got tough for me in college at times.
“You don’t really see it based on the incredible results we had, but I had some tough times with things that went on behind the scenes, and I think I grew up a lot. My mentality got stronger. Tactically, I realized, ‘I have to do this or else I’m not going to get on the field,‘” Baird said. “I just grew up a lot as a person during that time and that’s helped me immensely this season.”
Right on in.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 5, 2018
During his time at Stanford, Baird played with 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris, who took a similar path to the league, as well the recently-retired Brandon Vincent, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft.
Baird and Morris are two of three Homegrown players in MLS history to win Rookie of the Year, with D.C. United’s Andy Najar being the other.
“Being so close with those guys and seeing the hard work they put in, as well as just the success they had, puts a little bit of belief in you. Guys I was training with day in and day out, like Jordan and Brandon, they were just role models for me, seeing how they take care of themselves, how they train every day,” Baird said. “It was huge basically living under their wing and soaking up as much as I can from those guys.”
From a coaching perspective, Petke saw the influence the well-run program at Stanford had on Baird’s game, and how the college environment molded his mentality to be able to make an impact his rookie season.
“First on the soccer side, it’s a very good program and they were successful,” Petke said. “So he’s coming from an academy program that was successful, going into a college program where the success continues. It almost takes a hold of you and bleeds in you a little bit. You’re hungry for that success. You have to work for everything. I know the program there is a very high-tempo program, so I think that speaks a lot about his work rate.
“I think going to college was big for him just because of the personality and sociable aspect of it to get away from home, to live away from home on your own and be involved in a program like that, I think that helped attitude and mentality wise.”
Baird’s work rate has been on display since his time in the RSL academy, and he’s used a tip from one of the assistant coaches in the academy to further improve himself and pass on knowledge to other young players hoping to come up through the academy ranks.
“I remember one of assistant coaches at the academy told me, ‘You can’t always control your touch on the day or how well you play on the ball, but you can always control your work ethic,'” Baird said. “That’s something where even if you aren’t the most confident guy on the field, that can get you into a team, that can get you 10-15 minutes at the end of the game.”
With more expectations bound to be heaped on him in 2019, the same characteristics that led Baird into the MLS roster in 2018 have to shine through once again for his development to continue.
And while Petke is one of the 22-year-old forward’s biggest supporters, he knows this is only the first chapter of Baird’s soccer story.
“What I see a rookie’s role being, and I think Corey nailed it, is you have to be humble and have to understand that you’re starting your journey of your career and you have to rely on the veterans on the team and be willing to take your knocks not starting,” Petke said. “Every day, come with the same attitude and same mentality, the same hunger to improve. That’s going to set you up for the proper course.”
“If you come in and have a couple of goals like Corey did and now win Rookie of the Year and sit back and say I’ve arrived, now I’m set, then you’re going to find yourself a bust in a year or two. I think the more young kids that come into this league is important for this league and the national team, but they have to earn it. They have to continuously earn it. If they don’t, then they’re just wasting their talent.”