Nearly five years ago, Corey Baird sat in the stands at a U.S. Men’s National Team soccer game, dreaming of his own chance to play with the stars and stripes on his chest.
When the former Real Salt Lake AZ Academy stand-out walks out of the tunnel representing the United States in Sunday’s friendly contest against Panama at State Farm Stadium, it will be a landmark achievement for the 22-year-old.
“It’s kind of cool to not be in the crowd, but to possibly be on the field,” he says.
Baird was named to the 23-man roster after standing out in December’s National Team camp, following a successful first year for Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, the United States’ top professional league.
Coach Gregg Berhalter, who manned MLS club Columbus Crew SC until being named national coach late in 2018, will also be making his first appearance Sunday with the squad. In the few games the Crew played against RSL this season, Berhalter was immensely impressed by Baird’s skills and knowledge of the game.
“What I liked when I watched him play was his movement off the ball, his ability to break the defense with his running. That’s an important quality. You need guys that are willing to go deep to stretch the opposing defense, and he had that quality. His timing is excellent, and when he got into finishing positions, he stayed calm. That’s important for a rookie, to see his calmness, was really nice.”
A three-time NCAA Division 1 Men’s Soccer Championship winner at Stanford University, Baird signed as a homegrown player for Real Salt Late of Major League Soccer in January, 2018. He subsequently appeared in 31 games, scoring eight goals and five assists, in a season that earned him MLS Rookie of the Year for the 2018 MLS season.
Just over a month later he found himself participating with many of the best soccer players the United States has to offer. He says has not had a chance to take a break and reflect on an action-packed year.
“It’s really come at me fast,” Baird says. “I haven’t had a lot of time to look back at it. But, I don’t know if I want to look back. I want to look forward, because that’s gotten me this far.”
It is unclear whether Baird will see the field in the friendly contest against Panama. Berhalter and the coaching staff have not yet announced a starting lineup, and the number of substitutions the United States makes during the game could vary. However, even just the chance to compete in practice, and travel with the senior squad, is a reward in itself.
“It (being with the team) means the world. It’s something you dream about as a kid, and to finally be here with the full team is a special moment,” Baird says.
U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Panama, State Farm Stadium, 1 Cardinals Drive, Glendale, statefarmstadium.com, 6 p.m. Sunday, January 27, ticket price vary.