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RSL’s Corey Baird has options, but soccer is only one he’s interested in

Jul 4, 2018; Sandy, UT, USA; Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (27) scores against Sporting Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic (15) and goalkeeper Tim Melia (29) at Rio Tinto Stadium. (Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)

Corey Baird had a roommate at Stanford who is a computer coder and arrived on campus having already established several companies. Baird has never asked him what he makes, but he figures it probably involves another zero or two more than the $54,504 Baird pulled in as a rookie in Major League Soccer.

The same can be said for most of his classmates.

Baird shrugs. You can’t put a price on a dream.

And he’s living it right now. In the past 14 months, the 5-foot-10 winger won his third NCAA title at Stanford, scored eight goals in 31 appearances with Real Salt Lake, was named MLS rookie of the year and was summoned to Gregg Berhalter’s first camp as U.S. men’s national team coach this month at the Elite Athletic Training Center in Chula Vista. He turns 23 next week.

“I’m just hoping to keep on the same path,” Baird said.

The path began on soccer fields across San Diego and beyond, dragged to his brother’s club games with FC Heat and the La Jolla Nomads. Corey was six years younger, the little tyke kicking a ball on the sideline and doing what little brothers do — emulating their big bro.

He began at FC Heat as well, then moved to the San Diego Surf, attended one year at Cathedral Catholic High and was selected to U.S. Soccer’s under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. He spent his final year of high school in Arizona playing at Real Salt Lake’s youth academy based in Casa Grande, then four seasons at Stanford.

“It wasn’t in our goals that Corey would become a professional soccer player,” said Sean Baird, who works in software marketing and, like his wife, is a Cal alum. “We heavily counseled him to go to college. We weren’t sure that being a professional soccer player was the right career choice from a long-term revenue perspective. The youth soccer fields are built with people who had dreams of playing professionally and either couldn’t make it or it just wasn’t enough money. We wanted Corey to make sure he had options.

“What’s great about Corey’s story from my perspective, and why I’m super proud of him, is he took some things off the table by deciding to go to college and stay four years, instead of trying to go to Europe or signing with (MLS) earlier.”

The key word in all that: options.

It is the great difference between soccer players in the United States and the rest of the world. Here, it is largely a sport of the educated and privileged, of pristine fields and luxury SUVs and the latest model of $200 cleats. Kids play soccer just the same, but the point is they don’t have to play soccer to feed their family. They have options.

It might explain why several young MLS and second-division USL players have recently retired from the sport in their mid-20s. One of them: the Chicago Fire’s Brandon Vincent, a teammate of Baird’s at Stanford with an economics degree.

It works both ways. It’s nice to have a safety net beneath the uncertainty of professional sports, but it also can mute motivation, dull determination.

“It’s always in the back of your head: If I need that, I can fall back on it,” said Baird, who is a few classes short of a degree in Science, Technology and Society. “So yes, I have that fallback. But when I’m playing soccer, I don’t think about that at all because this is something I’ve wanted for so long and I want so badly. Even if I have that fallback if soccer doesn’t work out, it would still feel like the biggest failure stopping playing early and not reaching my full potential.”

That’s easy to say, of course, but the Darwinian nature of the pro game — perform or pack — has a way of separating pretenders from contenders.

“You see kids growing up where soccer was a passion but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” Baird said. “There is the thought that, if this doesn’t work out, I’m still going to school. But in the professional game, you see how cutthroat it is with the roster turnover. Even this year, RSL let go some guys and I’m like, ‘Whoa, those are some of my best friends on the team right now and they’re all getting let go.’

“The team is changing every year, the roster is never set, positions are never set. You could have one good year and not play the next.”

Baird was obtained by Real Salt Lake not through the draft but MLS’s Homegrown Player Rule, which allows clubs to claim the rights and sign players from their own development academies. That Baird was at RSL for only a year and spent the bulk of his development time at the Surf with respected coaches like Mike Nicholson doesn’t matter.

It also allowed RSL to offer him a contract for the MLS minimum with club options up to four years — a steal. The last four rookies of the year still in the league made between $111,250 and $234,500 last season.

“We didn’t expect him to be tied (to RSL) by our understanding of the rules,” said Sean Baird, his father. “But as he finished up at Stanford, we started talking seriously with Real Salt Lake and with MLS, it was pretty obvious that MLS had granted RSL his homegrown rights. At that point, his only entry into MLS was through Real Salt Lake.

“I’m very confident had Corey gone through the draft he would have done well and probably earned a little higher starting salary. But we literally had zero leverage.”

Other than the dollars, it worked out. Being a small-market club without deep pockets, RSL has actively promoted through its academy program. (Last season, it had 10 homegrown players on the books, most in the league.)

Baird caught a break with some injuries to veterans, and he went from expecting to spend the season at RSL’s affiliate in the second-division USL to starting 21 games with the big club. His combination of pace, power, soccer IQ and a nose for goal caught Berhalter’s eye, and he was one of eight uncapped players invited to the January camp that culminates in friendlies against Panama (Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.) and Costa Rica (Feb. 2 in San Jose).

“You hear a lot of stories about kids and how their parents have a plan and they know what they’re doing,” Sean Baird said. “We didn’t. We just wanted him to have fun, and Corey certainly developed an aptitude. The most we ever hoped for was that maybe it would get him into Cal.

“It certainly ballooned to be a little more than that.”

mark.zeigler@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutzeigler
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