WASHINGTON, D.C. — Exactly two years ago, D.C. United center back Steve Birnbaum was waiting for his opportunity to break into the starting lineup behind the veteran pairing of Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke.
How things have changed.
While Boswell remains United’s captain, Birnbaum has evolved into its most elite defender -- save possibly for goalkeeper Bill Hamid -- and has played his way into the US national team picture ahead of next month’s Copa America Centenario. Meanwhile, reports have surfaced linking him to several potential European suitors.
We caught up with Birnbaum about his road to the pros, his club and international aspirations, and his golf game as he and his Black-and-Red teammates prepared for Friday’s Atlantic Cup derby against the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET, UniMás).
Re2pect for Baseball
Despite a natural combination of height and athleticism that are ideal for a center back, Birnbaum grew up playing as much baseball as soccer, featuring as a shortstop and reliever on Southern California’s highly competitive travel circuit. And although he carried soft spots for Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry, his biggest childhood idol played on the diamond in pinstripes.
“I was a huge Derek Jeter fan,” Birnbaum says. “I wore No. 2. I was shortstop. Batted second in the order. I had like murals of stuff that he had done in my room.”
Don’t worry, he says. He’s not a Yankee fan anymore. Instead, he follows his family’s interest in the Cardinals, which in the city of Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper probably isn’t a whole lot better.
By high school, Birnbaum had chosen soccer over baseball because of the faster pace, a decision that ultimately led him to a college career at Cal. And by his final collegiate season, he was one of the nation’s top college defenders and a 10-goal scorer.
To a point, he’s carried that over, scoring twice during United’s 2015 league campaign and once in the USMNT’s January friendly against Iceland. And he still likes to creep into United’s shooting drills at the end of training sessions, says goalkeeper Travis Worra.
“For a center back, he’s pretty good at striking the ball,” Worra said. “He’ll place it on the corners pretty well actually. But I don’t worry when he steps up to shoot.”
Birnbaum actually took penalties for Cal during his senior season, partly because of coach Kevin Grimes’ theory that the calmest players should be the ones stepping up to the spot. “Apparently center backs don’t run a lot in the game, so we should have the lowest heart rate,” Birnbaum quipped.
“Absolutely not,” Birnbaum said. “I think everyone has seen my finishing during practice. They would think it was a joke more than anything.”
Birnbaum credits veteran teammate Boswell as a key force in his early development as a professional, even while Boswell and Parke prevented him from seeing the pitch during his first 13 games as a pro.
“He would be in my ear saying that your time would come, when I was sitting out my first year,” Birnbaum recalled. “It did come and I got to play next to him thankfully, and he’s shown me a lot.”
Turn Up the Volume
One way Boswell helped Birnbaum improve was by working on his communication and organization skills. Teammates like Worra agree, noting that Birnbaum’s demeanor on the pitch differs from his mellow vibe away from it.
“He looks really calm and steady. And then in the game, he and I will really get into it and get into each other,” Worra said. “Just constructive criticism sort of things. But I never really pictured him to raise his voice level or anything like that.”
Birnbaum received invitations for Jurgen Klinsmann’s January camps in 2015 and 2016, then joined the Yanks for a pair of qualifiers against Guatemala in March. He started in the second, a 4-0 shutout in Columbus that put the US back on the path toward CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round.
Birnbaum called it “the biggest game of my career,” but he could have the opportunity for more if he makes this summer’s Copa America roster. Coach Ben Olsen is pulling for him, even if it means an inconvenience for the club.
“With the national team, when I think back, those are the special times, whether it was the Gold Cups or the Confederation Cups, the Copa Americas and the World Cup,” Olsen said. “Being with a national team for a longer period, those are great.”
Birnbaum has occasionally featured at outside back, a trait he believes could help his international aims. “I think it helps my case, but I don’t think [Klinsmann] or most people see me as an outside back. It’s more of an emergency thing. But now that I’ve played there a couple times, I do feel a little more comfortable stepping in there instead of just throwing me into the fire and dealing with things.”
Are Euro Staying or Leaving?
Birnbaum has been linked to potential interest from clubs in Germany, Belgium and Israel in the last couple weeks as the European domestic seasons die down and the so-called “silly season” transfer speculation begins. Birnbaum says he isn’t focused on a move overseas, but didn’t rule it out, either.
“It’s always nice to have people who want you and who are interested,” Birnbaum said. “My agents are dealing with that. Right now they’re wanting me to focus on D.C. and hopefully if I get called in to the US [national team], the Copa America, then that would be great.”
The Other Kind of Clubs
Since becoming a professional, Birnbaum has turned to golf as an off-the-field outlet with current teammate Taylor Kemp and assistant coach Davy Arnaud. On his best days, he’s capable of shooting an 85. On his worst, that more intense side can come out.
“I’ve thought about throwing my clubs,” he said. “It’s tough, because once you make a bad shot, it’s tough to make it up. You shoot yourself in the foot a couple times. … We’re pretty competitive when we go out there, so it’s not a relaxing day.”
Not in Awe
At 25, Birnbaum is on the older side for a third-year pro. But the rise since leaving college has still been quick. And if he’s in the side for the Yanks’ Copa America opener on June 3, that would come four days before the two-year anniversary of his United debut. Which would be nice, but not a shock.
“I do keep high expectations for myself,” he said. “Coming in [to D.C.], I thought I should’ve been starting right away, but that’s how things work. … Once I came on the field, I tried to show them what I could do, and I’ve kind of never left since then. I’m thankful for where I am, but I’m not surprised, if that makes sense.”