And it all began with a 4-0 defeat at New York City FC just two weeks into the season, a loss Birnbaum hopes D.C. can avenge when NYCFC visits RFK Stadium on Saturday (4 pm ET; Facebook.com | UniMas in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada).
“We’ve got a bad taste in our mouth from that last game,” Birnbaum said. “So we’re kind of ready to stick it to them this week and we want to get them back.”
That would be a good start toward erasing the memories of last month's misery. But NYCFC’s comprehensive victory spelled only the beginning of Birnbaum’s bad breaks.
The next weekend, he personally conceded two penalties in Columbus Crew SC’s 2-0 win at RFK Stadium. The week after that, he was left off of US national team coach Bruce Arena’s roster for World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
“Things weren’t going my way or the team’s way the whole month,” said Birnbaum, who was going through his own personal rough patch while simultaneously adjusting into his new role as United captain and working out the kinks with a new center back partner Sean Franklin, who slid over from right back in a move that pushed 13-year vet Bobby Boswell to the bench.
“I don’t want to say pressure,” Birnbaum said of assuming the captaincy. “But you want to do well for the team and you feel like it’s on your shoulders if the team doesn’t do well – a little bit more urgency, I guess.”
With all that going on, staying home during the international break was “obviously frustrating,” Birnbaum said. But it may also have been a blessing in disguise.
“I think it was good for me to be here with the team,” Birnbaum said. “My focus is solely on D.C. right now and getting us a bunch of wins. That’s what I’m trying to do, and push us forward. And hopefully Bruce sees that and sees that I’m a steady performer.”
Boswell returned as Birnbaum’s center back partner for that match, with Olsen describing the move as having more to do with a gut feeling than any specific poor play from Franklin.
“Obviously, the second half we were defending the whole time,” Birnbaum said. “Bobby’s a veteran guy, he knows where to be and where to snuff out situations. It’s just different.”
Birnbaum is diplomatic about the merits of playing both, with Franklin the more versatile and Boswell the more vocal option to lineup next to him.
Even as captain, Birnbaum is still not as outspoken as Boswell, who wore the armband from 2014 to 2016. But he’s beginning to understand being the team’s on-field leader doesn’t necessarily mean changing his personality.
“Bobby’s a big voice in the locker room and on the field, and so he takes a lot of the [vocal responsibility],” Birnbaum said. “But I try to lead by example and have my two cents where I can.”