Real Salt Lake’s Corey Baird wins Rookie of the Year

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (27) kicks the ball between Sporting Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic (15) and Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia (29) as he scores a goal for Real Salt Lake, in MLS soccer action between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City at Rio Tinto Stadium, Wednesday, July 4, 2018.

Sandy • Mike Petke couldn’t wait to give Corey Baird the news.

On the flight back from Los Angeles last week, Petke pulled Baird aside and informed him of something many around Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer thought would happen: he won Rookie of the Year.

On Monday, the league made it official.

“It was a pretty surreal feeling when I found out,” Baird told The Salt Lake Tribune by phone before the league’s official announcement. “It’s amazing. I can’t really put it into words sometimes.”

Baird, 22, started 21 games as a rookie and scored eight goals with five assists. He is one of Real Salt Lake’s homegrown players.

Baird said he did not think about gunning for the award when the season started. But as the season wore on, buzz began to accumulate.

Baird was named a finalist for the award last Wednesday. Petke told the team during a training session ahead of the road playoff win over Los Angeles Football Club.

Petke said at the time that he loved that Baird was being recognized by league.

“To me, he’s the obvious choice, just from his production,” Petke said. “I think it’s good. It shouldn’t give him anything more than confidence that he could play at this level and he has a lot to build off of.”

Fellow rookie Aaron Herrera, also a homegrown player, said RSL probably would not have qualified for the playoffs if it weren’t for Baird.

“I don’t even know if there should be any other nominees for that,” Herrera said Wednesday. “Corey’s killed it this year.”

When his teammates learned the news, they joked with Baird and said they knew he was going to win, Baird said. But he was still skeptical.

“I was never sure,” Baird said. “I was always nervous about it. So to actually have it be official is pretty cool.”

Baird said last week that the league-wide attention affected his play earlier in the season. As a result, he tried to put it out of his mind and just focus on the playoffs.

Now that he won the award, he is going to take some time to soak it in before focusing on the task at hand: advancing in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It’s definitely something where I’m not going to completely forget about it, but it’s something I can’t be focusing on,” Baird said. “I have to use it in the right way. Just get some confidence from it, but stay true to who I am.”