And he definitely didn’t see himself making this kind of impact at center forward.
A natural winger, Baird thought he’d get most of his early run with RSL’s USL team, Real Monarchs. The 22-year-old hoped to eventually work his way onto the occasional MLS gameday roster and make his full debut, but with high-profile wingers Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino ahead of him on the depth chart, he figured first-team minutes would be hard to come by.
But an impressive preseason put him in the 18 from the jump, and an early injury to Plata gave him a shot on the wing. He had a couple of solid performances out wide, scoring his first career MLS goal in a 3-1 loss at Toronto on March 30 before registering an assist in his first start, a 2-1 win against Vancouver, on April 7.
After Plata returned a couple of weeks later, Baird was moved to the point of Mike Petke’s 4-2-3-1 formation. He debuted at at No. 9 spot on April 21, when he subbed in for Luis Silva for the final 20 minutes of RSL’s win against Colorado. The change took, with Salt Lake scoring all three of their goals against the Rapids after Baird entered. He’s started at center forward in the three games since, scoring in each of RSL’s last two, including notching their opener in their 3-2 win against D.C. United last Saturday.
“I definitely expected a much slower-going process, getting games with the Monarchs and hopefully getting some rosters and making my [MLS] debut,” Baird told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “Unfortunately, due to injury, I made my debut, but I think I’ve made the most of that. I think I’ve played in every game since. I just think Mike’s given me a lot of confidence and I’ve been able to run with that.”
He doesn’t have much experience leading a forward line, but Baird has given RSL a different look up top. He’s a willing defender and an active runner, committed to occupying and stretching opposing center backs. He’s also played a little bit higher up the field than Silva, who started at No. 9 in six of RSL’s first seven games.
The subtle differences have created a little more room for Plata, Savarino and attacking midfielder Albert Rusnak, who have combined for four goals and four assists – more than half of their total 2018 production – since Baird came on for Silva against Colorado.
“I’m just trying to make as many runs for them as possible, looking to stretch the defense so they have space underneath to get the ball on the half turn in between the midfield and defense,” Baird said. “Just whatever way I can stretch the team or get in behind and just give a different look.”
Baird’s emergence is a positive, but it’s also a bit of an indictment on the rest of RSL’s forward corps. Silva has just one goal and no assists in eight games so far this season. Offseason signing Alfredo Ortuño has zero goals or assists, has only managed to earn 119 minutes in just three appearances and hasn’t dressed for the club’s last three matches. The two of them combine to earn nearly $1.4 million, according to the MLS Players’ Union. Meanwhile, Baird, who didn’t even play as a No. 9 in college, is making just $54,504, the league minimum.
“I think I need to just keep doing what I did to get my playing time initially, with my work ethic and doing whatever I can for the team,” he said. “I think the work ethic is what got me minutes in the first place, so I don’t want to lose sight of what got me these opportunities.”