Corey Baird - Real Salt Lake - in action vs. Orlando City

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Corey Baird came into 2018 with some relatively modest goals for his first campaign as a full-time, professional soccer player: Make his first-team MLS debut with Real Salt Lake, and then “play in as many games as possible.”

Baird comfortably exceeded those expectations. And the ones that followed, too, as the 23-year-old uncorked a year to remember, scoring eight goals for RSL, assisting on five others, taking home the MLS Rookie of the Year Award and earning a spot in the first camp run by new US national team coach Gregg Berhalter.

It’s a meteoric rise capped by Baird making his first USMNT senior-level appearance Sunday in the Americans’ 3-0 win against Panama. The former Stanford star could have a chance to show off for his Cardinal faithful Saturday as the US host Costa Rica at nearby Avaya Stadium (3:30 pm ET | FS1).

“If you told me a year ago I would have been here, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Baird admitted to reporters Tuesday after the USMNT finished working out on the San Jose Earthquakes’ training pitch. “I think I always had belief in myself, and a drive that I think I could get there. But going into my rookie season, I didn’t expect what happened, didn’t expect the rise. . . . I didn’t think I was at that level yet.”

He wasn’t, initially. Baird didn’t see action in RSL’s first two matches, followed by a pair of appearances as a second-half substitute. Baird scored his first MLS goal in that second stint, and then followed it up with another in early May that tickled Baird’s former coach, Stanford’s Jeremy Gunn.

“He has such sublime skill, and he also has that wonderful swagger,” Gunn told via phone Tuesday, reminiscing about Baird’s outside-of-the-foot chip past Orlando City’sJoe Bendik. “You see in his first year [at RSL], he’s nicking in and dinking it over a goalkeeper. What sort of first-year player has the awareness to do that? That’s pretty special.”

Gunn isn’t one to guarantee success for former Cardinal players that go on to the pro ranks, but Baird ranked with predecessors such as Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent on the talent scale.

“With Corey, just like with Jordan and Brandon, we knew that they had the ability to be successful,” Gunn said. “Corey has some incredible abilities as a soccer player – that he has an incredible touch, incredible ball striking, and is a very, very, very intelligent soccer player. He is, without doubt, one of the smartest soccer players I’ve worked with.”

RSL coach Mike Petke proved no slouch in that arena either, quickly putting Baird in his starting lineup despite the lack of pro experience.

“It really gave me confidence that our coach believed in me and the players around me believed in me,” said Baird, who eventually made 21 starts. “Towards the end of the season, yeah, I thought this was an opportunity that might come my way. . . . As you achieve some goals, you start setting new ones.”

That’s always been the way of things for Baird, who went from a sparkling US youth career to winning three consecutive NCAA titles at Stanford to new accolades in MLS and beyond.

It’s a glittering resumé that perhaps masks the work put in to make it reality.

“We look at lack of adversity in that he’s had incredible outcomes. But there’s a lot of adversity along the way towards those incredible outcomes. The incredible outcomes have come from his constant work and the program’s constant drive to improve,” Gunn said. “We’re very, very strong on keeping people grounded, keeping people working hard. And so I think for somebody who had great accolades at the Under-17 national [team] level, I think it was a great marriage for Corey, because our environment helped continuously push him every day.”

Baird has found another such environment with the USMNT this month, trying to soak up the nuances of what Berhalter wants to install as the program attempts to recover from the 2018 World Cup qualification failure. Baird admitted “it’s been tough, at times,” to keep up with the learning curve set this month – although it should help him in his goal to meet his personal goals for 2019.

“I’m hoping to establish myself as an every-game starter with RSL and be consistent with the call-ups to the national team, and every time I get called up, perform,” Baird said.

As Gunn put it: “He’s doing fantastic. He’s had one international cap. Now the challenge is, how many can he get?”