Sandy • Corey Baird looked every bit the part. Except, he’s not in college. Not anymore. In jeans, an unbuttoned flannel and a T-shirt conveying a message, the Real Salt Lake rookie forward flashed a peace sign and walked into Rio Tinto Stadium 90 minutes before he played his part in displaying why this franchise has chosen to give the young guns a shot.
The T-shirt further endeared him to fans in Utah and considering where the rookie is at the midway point of the MLS season, it might mean a little more come fall. The shirt featured a black and white photo of Ben Simmons, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year.
The hashtag “#NOTMYROTY” was placed across the face of Simmons, an ode to the memorable first year of Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who Utah fans feel deserved the award more than Simmons.
“I think it’s a great shirt and I’m supporting local Donovan Mitchell,” Baird said. “Happy to do it.”
It seems fate, perhaps, that the kids — especially Baird who is now the MLS Rookie of the Year frontrunner — sparkled in RSL’s 4-2 win over Sporting Kansas City.
It took some time, though.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was afternoon barbecue, but whatever it was, RSL needed a jolt. The first 20 minutes of the Wednesday night’s was scattered, leaving RSL in search of the flow of the match. The hectic start was capped when Sporting KC provided the wake-up call.
Once Daniel Salloi found himself unmarked six yards from goal and tapped in the easiest goal he’ll ever score in his young career, the vibe changed. It had to. If not, RSL was going to be played off the field if it kept going that way. But the frustrated barks of Nick Rimando were heard and felt. The screams from Mike Petke to sort it out were taken to heart.
“I think that we started really playing the game tonight in the 25th to 30th minute,” Petke said.
And, eventually, RSL woke itself up. In a big, big way.
Despite going down 1-0 in the 20th minute, RSL stormed back on a cloudless Fourth of July evening. If there was any validation needed of the organization’s shift toward utilizing its younger, often homegrown talent, Wednesday night was the latest sample of what this generation could look like for years to come.
RSL’s youthful core flipped the match on its head within five minutes of conceding to Kansas City. Suddenly, RSL was sending waves of counterattacks at Kansas City, and there were no answers to be found, at least in the first half.
“It’s fun, everyone’s enjoying the ball and that’s when you want to play soccer,” Baird said. “That’s when you’re at your best.”
Jefferson Savarino, the 21-year-old Venezuelan winger who captivated the fan base a year ago with his fearlessness on the ball, put RSL even in the 29th minute, drilling a shot into the back of the net kept alive by Baird off a corner kick. It was Savarino’s first goal since May 12.
Baird wasn’t awarded an assist, but his relentless hustle made the goal possible. Eight minutes later, Baird got his. The 22-year-old pounced on a poor clearance attempt by midfielder Roger Espinoza and eventually curled a right-footed shot into the back of the net, putting RSL up 2-1.
“He’s done well,” Petke said. “He’s a young kid. He has to gain experience. A more experienced Corey in three or four years, he has 12 or 13 goals [in a season], to be honest with you.”
Baird now leads the team in goals scored with five and has two assists to boot. He earned a penalty kick in the 80th minute, but Albert Rusnák was unable to capitalize on the attempt.
The offensive festivities continued into the first minute of stoppage time as 21-year-old Sebastian Saucedo capped off a picture-perfect counter to put RSL up 3-1 that Rusnák and Damir Kreilach helped orchestrate. It was the first home goal for the RSL academy product from Park City. He described the moment as “a dream come true.”
“I think if we connect, we keep it going,” Saucedo said. “I think we can be a special group in the future going into the playoffs.”
Sporting KC pulled within one goal in the 64th minute as substitute Johnny Russell found center back Ike Opara at the back post for an easy tap-in. After two red cards and a missed penalty by Rusnák, Luis Silva scored from the penalty spot in the 100th minute of the match to cap off the evening.
“I think it’s definitely a statement,” Baird said.