Herriman • Goals by Albert Rusnák and Sam Johnson had Corey Baird written all over them.
It was April 18 in Cincinnati, and the second-year Real Salt Lake homegrown player’s shot rebounded straight to Rusnák for a shot that found the back of the net. Later, another attempt on goal by Baird was blocked only to find Johnson for the finish.
Baird remembers those plays well, even though they happened months ago. They’re indicative of the impact he feels he’s had on the field despite a dip in production compared to his breakout 2018 season in which he was named Rookie of the Year.
“I might not get on the stat sheet,” Baird told The Salt Lake Tribune this week, “but I still think I’m affecting the play.”
Baird has notched just one goal this season and added two assists. But in 2018, he tallied eight goals and five assists, taking Major League Soccer by storm as one of the best young players in the league.
But his numbers in 2019 have been on his mind. And while he knows statistics aren’t the only measure used to evaluate on-field performance, Baird said his position makes them worthy of monitoring.
“There’s a lot more than just the end product that goes into a game,” Baird said. “I think I’ve been pretty good with that. But obviously I’m a forward so those stats are big. If you’re not getting on the score sheet [or] you’re not getting an assist, then you’re not doing some of what your job is.”
COREY BAIRD FILE
Stats: One goal, two assists, six shots on goal, 1,255 minutes
Career highlights: Named 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year
Coincidentally, Baird’s only goal of the season came a week before the Cincinnati game. He hasn’t scored in nine straight games or recorded an assist in 10 straight.
Baird’s teammates and coaches, however, think Baird’s season is going just fine. Coach Mike Petke said Baird does a host of other things beside scoring that make him valuable on the team and would not describe him as “struggling.”
“Corey brings something to us that we like,” Petke said. “His unselfishness, his relentless work rate, his ability to get behind defenses. I don’t think Corey should be judged off of he hasn’t scored as many goals as he did last year. Corey brings quality to us in ways that we need it.”
Brooks Lennon, a close friend of Baird, said the second-year forward is one of the best players on RSL. He lauded Baird’s dedication and his team-first mentality. And when Baird is “down” like he has been at various points over the last couple of years, Lennon is there to pick him up.
“I’m not worried for him whatsoever,” Lennon said. “He’s going to go back in there and start scoring goals and getting assists and doing what he does best.”
But Baird still thinks there’s room for improvement. He described his 2019 so far as “a little down from last year.” Coming into the season, his goal was to score more and get more assists than the previous season, as well as play more minutes. He’s on track to do the latter, but may have to reevaluate the former with only 15 games left in the regular season, he said.
“I have a lot of personal goals,” Baird said. “But really it’s just about playing well and making sure this team makes the playoffs.”
Baird couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason why his statistical production has dipped. But the addition of Sam Johnson took him out of the striker role he often played last season. Instead, Baird has played mainly on the wings this year, which is where he has played with the United States Men’s National Team.
Baird pointed to the fact that Johnson and Damir Kreilach perform well in that striker role. And on the wing, teammates like Jefferson Savarino, Sebastian Saucedo and Joao Plata have proven to be viable options. So he constantly has to find ways to keep standing out in order to keep his spot in the lineup.
But Baird considers that situation a positive.
“I think the fact that we have so much depth, especially in that attacking group, is really good,” Baird said. “I think it’s really humbling for a lot of the attackers because you don’t always know if you’re going to start on the weekend. You have a bad couple games, there’s a guy right behind you that’s waiting to get on the field and waiting to prove himself.”
Baird may not score more than eight goals and provide more than five assists this season. But what matters more for Petke are Baird’s “little intangibles.” And Petke sees no issues in how Baird is progressing through his career so far.
“It’s his second year in the league,” Petke said. “Last year, no one expected him to do what he did. And perhaps this year, a lot of people are expecting too much, to be quite honest with you. We’re comfortable where Corey is and Corey’s going to be a big part for us moving forward.”
REAL SALT LAKE VS MINNESOTA UNITED
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » RSL 1, Minnesota 1 (Sept. 15, 2018)
Records » RSL 9-9-2 (6th in West), Minnesota 10-7-3 (4th in West)
About Minnesota » Enters game on a four-game winning streak. … Darwin Quintero leads team with six goals. … Third-highest scoring team in the league with 37 goals. … Lost three of the last four road games in MLS play.
About RSL » Currently on a five-game winning streak at home. … Won only one of previous four games against Minnesota. … Sam Johnson, who leads the team with eight goals, will not play due to injury. Albert Rusnák is the next-highest scorer with seven goals.