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HERRIMAN — Corey Baird wasn’t the only newcomer to make the starting XI in Gregg Berhalter’s first official match in charge of the U.S. men’s national team.
But while the Real Salt Lake Academy product was one of seven first-time starters in the team's 3-0 win Sunday night over Panama in Glendale, Arizona, it’s hard to argue that Baird didn’t make the most of his opportunity.
And that's not even talking about his assist, a well-placed cross from the wing that fellow debutante Djordjie Mihailovic buried for the opening goal in the first half.
"It's something that as a kid you’re always thinking about," Baird told ussoccer.com after his first cap. "It’s a dream come true, and to get an assist was amazing. It’s icing on the cake."
Indeed, even without being in camp for the first week of preseason — which Real Salt Lake spent in Los Angeles before returning home Monday for a week — Baird has already proven that he is ready to build on last season.
That’s a high standard for the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, a player who led all rookies with eight goals and five assists in the regular season.
But it’s also a challenge that Baird appears eager to tackle.
"It all comes down to Corey. Opportunities are given and they need to be taken," RSL coach Mike Petke said after Monday’s training session. "I think it's excellent that he’s going to come back in great soccer shape, with the level he’s played at now. It’s only going to help us."
Baird's fitness level — he played 75 minutes for Berhalter before being subbed out of one of the youngest U.S. lineups in the modern era, at 25 years and 11 days — could place him at a distinct advantage over several MLS players, who are reporting to the second week of training camp around the country.
That includes Real Salt Lake, who Petke mentioned is "slightly ahead of where I expected them to be" in fitness.
And it will make juggling lineup decisions — a lineup that will feature a significant amount of rotation with more mid-week games and a shorter schedule than MLS has had since the early days of the league.
"I'm very happy to get him back in here," Petke said of Baird. "He's going to force me to make a couple of very big decisions this year; him and a lot of other guys. It’s what a coach wants."
LA to Utah to Hawaii to Tucson
Monday marked the beginning of the second full week of training camp leading up to Real Salt Lake’s 2019 season opener March 2 in Houston.
After a week of training at the RSL Academy in Herriman, the club will depart for Hawaii Feb. 8-10 to play Japan’s Iwaki FC, then immediately travel to Tucson for the preseason scrimmages against the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers and USL Championship side Phoenix Rising FC.
Allen still out
Baird wasn’t the only young player missing from Monday's training session.
Petke said that homegrown utility player Jordan Allen was still out of training while he “had permission to take care of some things” during the offseason.
No timetable is set for the return of Allen, who is still under contract with Real Salt Lake and part of the club's roster.