As Corey Baird walked into the locker room of the United States Men’s National Team to prepare for his first-ever international appearance, his eyes fixated on one of the blue jerseys. On it read his last name and the number 7.
It was a moment that harkened back to when Baird was a kid, dreaming about playing soccer for his country on the same field as those he idolized. In the months before, he’d been named Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year and was integral in Real Salt Lake’s playoff run that stopped just a couple goals short of a Western Conference Finals appearance.
At that moment, looking at his name and number that sat just on the opposite side of the initials “USA,” Baird was on top of the world.
“It all really sank in that this was actually happening,” Baird said in a recent phone interview.
Baird started both friendlies for the USMNT — wins against Panama and Costa Rica — and notched a nifty assist in the first. In all, he played a total of 145 minutes.
Since then, Baird has reunited with his RSL teammates, and he expects to build on that experience.
“I think it’s huge for my confidence, just reassuring myself that I belong here and making sure that I’m able to build off everything I did last year,” Baird said.
In his rookie season, Baird started 21 games, scored eight goals and notched five assists. Late in the year, he said he was trying to prove he was worthy of a recurring role as a starter.
While head coach Mike Petke said during media day that the odds of Baird — and the rest of his roster for that matter — becoming a 34-game starter are “99 percent no,” he acknowledged the coaching staff must figure out a way to find consistent minutes for him.
“We recognize how special Corey is as a young player and the opportunity that he has, and we want to keep him going towards getting more opportunities like that,” Petke said. “The only way that’s going to happen is if he plays. So us figuring that out is a priority.”
At times last season, Baird played up front as a striker. With the USMNT, he was placed out wide. When asked where he plans to play Baird this season, Petke said in a “perfect world,” he would also put Baird wide. One of the reasons for that, Petke said, is because that’s where national team coach Gregg Berhalter put him.
“I think Gregg Berhalter is a phenomenal coach and he sees what we see — all the little traits and intangibles we’ve talked about,” Petke said. “He sees Corey the same way we do. And if Corey has a position with the national team, it’s wide. So we’re going to look to do that as much as possible.”
But Baird isn’t focusing on playing in a particular position. As long he’s out there for the majority of games, he’ll play wherever Petke puts him, he said.
“I think it’s more so getting on the field and performing ever week because if I’m playing out wide, but playing every third game, then I’m not going to be getting called in to camps anymore,” Baird said. “I think I just want to really get on the field any way I can to help the team rather than trying to find my favorite position right now.”
Baird went to USMNT January Camp with Justen Glad, who also participated last season. Baird said he spoke to Glad at length about what to expect there. He also received encouragement from veterans like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, both of whom have seen many international camps in their careers.
Glad, who has yet to make a final USMNT roster and play in a game, said having Baird back after his experience should raise the level of the entire team. Beckerman said he anticipated the reigning Rookie of the Year coming back with increased quality and sharpness to his game. Both Glad and Beckerman spoke while Baird was still in Arizona with the national team.
“He’ll be coming back flying,” Beckerman said.
National team appearances don’t happen for many soccer players, especially so early in their careers. Baird is cognizant of that, and is trying his best to take it all in stride.
“Having everything come so fast has obviously been amazing,” Baird said. “It’s just about not letting that get to your head and building off of it rather than this being the peak of my career.”