Dynamo Quiet Man Corey Baird ‘Finding That Groove’

MLS’ 2018 Rookie of the Year is having a career-defining season with the resurgent Houston Dynamo – and facing a U.S. Open Cup Final against Leo Messi’s superstar-studded Inter Miami on Sept. 27th.
By: Jonah Fontela

The Open Cup is a stage for the underdog.

Corey Baird, in the midst of a breakout season with Houston Dynamo, knows it better than most.

“I remember, in the 2015 Open Cup, we had a chance to play the LA Galaxy,” said Baird, thinking back to when, still in his teens, he and his all-amatuer PSA Elite summer-leaguers earned the right to play MLS royalty in the Fourth Round.

“We were unfortunate,” he smiled about that day when his team of young strivers went a goal up on the LA Galaxy juggernaut, from the top-tier league where he now makes his living. “Robbie Keane [three-time MLS champion and 2014 league MVP] started for them that day and even though we had a little hope after going up, that hope didn’t last long.”

Nearly a decade has passed since then. And Corey Baird, three times an NCAA national champion at Stanford, has toiled away largely in obscurity as a journeyman winger, sometimes a striker, despite an auspicious start to his life in Major League Soccer. He was that rare player who, in his rookie season coming out of the college ranks, needed next to no seasoning in the lower leagues. 

Hot Start to MLS Life

He spent exactly one game with Real Salt Lake’s lower-league affiliate Real Monarchs before being called up to the first team. Once there, he scored eight goals and served in five assists in 31 appearances. That was enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors for 2018 and a call-up to Gregg Berhalter’s first camp in charge of the U.S. Men’s National Team in January of 2019.

But auspicious beginnings don’t always lead to meteoric rises – or even consistent flight patterns. A 2019 friendly against Panama remains, to this day, the San Diego native’s only start with the USMNT (he made three further substitute appearances during that camp). In his two further seasons at RSL, he failed to match the form or output of his first.

Baird spent seven months of the 2021 season with LAFC before a move, later that same year, to Houston.

And here, at a club currently undergoing a substantive revival after seasons of stagnation, Baird has found the right teammates, the right kind of wind and, in Ben Olsen, a coach who believes in him.

“He does so much dirty work for this team,” said coach Olsen, an Open Cup winner as a player and a coach, who’s given the soft-spoken Baird a chance to establish himself in his second year at the club. “Corey understands how to be the first line of defense. And he’s starting to get rewarded with goals.”

In his previous four seasons in MLS, Baird failed to find the net with consistency. But now, in the league and on Houston’s run to the Open Cup Final, the 27-year-old is born anew and banging them in. He scored his first career hat-trick in a 2023 U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 win over Minnesota United FC and – he’s got seven to date in 2023 MLS league play.

Finding A Way

“He’s worked really hard on finding the right patterns this year,” said Dynamo GM Pat Onstad, a member of the second-division Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos that won the Open Cup in 1999 before becoming a two-title legend for the Dynamo as starting goalkeeper in back-to-back MLS Cup wins (2006 and 2007).

Onstad, who arrived in November of 2021 as part of a major front office shake-up, is about the business of re-building the Dynamo. It’s a project he says “feels personal” and is well on its way to bearing fruit. With one of the best midfields in the league, boasting ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla, Amine Bassi and captain Hector Herrera, the Dynamo are flying under the radar heading into this month’s Open Cup Final.

Up against what Coach Olsen calls “the sexiest team in world soccer,” Leo Messi’s Inter Miami, Baird is the underdog again. But this isn’t 2015. He’s done a lot of growing and much learning. He’s surrounded by players who feed off the energy of being “disrespected,” as Ben Olsen puts it, and are hungry to show what they can do on the day.

“We’re really finding that groove,” said Baird, quiet and unassuming off the field. “We’re getting buy-in from everyone and so many guys are stepping up right when we need them.”

Baird himself is high on a long list of those Dynamo players upping their game. But he’s not one to toot his own horn. His goal three days after the Open Cup Semifinal against his former club Real Salt Lake was his 10th in all competitions – and he followed it with another in a draw against high-flyers St Louis City.

“I’ve been feeling good,” he said. “I’m starting to really be able to read the runs of the other guys and get that good understanding. It’s a lot of fun right now. We’re having fun as a team and playing a style that’s fun for the guys.”

High Vibes at the Shell

Fun. It’s not a word applied to many recent Houston Dynamo teams. Before the arrival of Onstad and Olsen it was, without argument, an organization in decline. A 2018 Open Cup triumph was the sole bright spot for a club that’s reached the MLS playoffs only twice in the last decade. 

The post-goal celebrations in today’s Dynamo squad are raucous and wild. Baird, quiet and studious off the field, has rolled out an array of crab dances and muscle man pantomimes to punctuate his increasing catalog of goals. Also in on the act are the always smiling Bassi, Panamanian sensation Carrasquilla and, yes, even captain Hector Herrera, the team’s gritty skipper and spiritual leader. 

“We’ve never been a big name,” Baird said of his Houston Dynamo, outsiders heading into a fascinating Open Cup Final against Inter Miami and their captain Messi, who Baird calls “a different level” than your run-of-mill MLS superstar  “We don’t have the flashiest names outside of Hector and maybe Coco now, but that takes a little pressure off us for the Final.

“This is my first chance to lift a trophy,” said Baird, the hungry underdog once again. “No one would have had us in this situation at the start of the year, so we’re playing with house money and it’s a chance to enjoy ourselves, play our game and try to lift that trophy.” 

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.