Selected second overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, most people expected D.C. United center back Steve Birnbaum to make a modest impact during his first year or two of professional play.
Birnbaum was fresh off a 2013 college campaign, one in which he — along with fellow 2014 SuperDraft prospect Christian Dean — anchored a very stingy Cal back line. Scouts praised the 23-year-old’s acumen on both sides of the ball, as Birnbaum had managed to find the back of the net 10 times during his senior year.
Few, though, pegged Birnbaum as a lock starter. United, after all, had already completely overhauled their defense after a disastrous 2013, bringing in MLS vets Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke to steady a back line that was picked apart at will a year prior. Birnbaum was viewed by most prognosticators as the heir apparent, a young talent who’d spend a year or two under the tutelage of Boswell and Parke before hopping into the driver’s seat.
Things did not go as planned.
Parke went down in June with a foot injury and would eventually be lost for the year to an inner-ear ailment. Short on options, Birnbaum was United head coach Ben Olsen’s go-to as a replacement center back. He’d prove to be MLS’s most dependable rookie defender.
"I knew he was going to be something special early on,” Boswell told MLSsoccer.com in an interview during United’s pre-season training camp in Austin, Texas. “Even well before he was a starter — I’d watch him in practice and he was so hard to break down, and he was making a real good case for himself at that point. It was obviously unfortunate what happened to Jeff, but we didn’t drop off even a little bit when Steve came in. I wasn’t surprised.”
After a successful rookie campaign, one that saw Birnbaum finish the year third in MLS Rookie of the Year voting, Boswell wasn’t the only one noticing the lanky center back. Birnbaum also caught the eye of US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who last month gave him his first senior team call-up.
Already in the Golden State when he received the invite, Birnbaum spent a couple of weeks “crushing fitness” before joining the team, a move that likely paid dividends given Klinsmann’s recent focus on that very subject.
“Well, obviously it was awesome,” Birnbaum told MLSsoccer.com. "First of all I was just so grateful to be called in – and once I got there I felt real comfortable with the guys from the get go. Once we started training, I tried to work as hard as I could obviously. If I made a mistake I’d just try to win the ball back.
“The coaching staff was great as well. It was also nice to have [D.C. United teammate] Perry [Kitchen] there with me as well, to have a friend on and off the field that I could bounce ideas off of – or even just someone to kick around with."
If Birnbaum did a bit of on-the-job learning after being thrust into the spotlight during his rookie season with United, he’d have to do a bit more at the international level. The center back impressed during his first few days at camp, so much so that he’d get his first cap not as a sub, but as a starter in the USMNT’s encounter with Chile in Rancagua.
This would be no walk in the park: Birnbaum found himself on the right side of a three-man back line, forced to deal with a very attack-minded Chile side playing a 3-4-3 with their wing backs bombing forward at will.
Birnbaum was more than serviceable; he was steady as a rock, breaking up several attacks while showing composure on the ball. He drew near universal praise, including that of his own boss.
“Definitely Steven was one of the winners,” Klinsmann would say at the conclusion of camp.
Birnbaum seemed equally impressed with his head coach: “A week or two into camp he started giving me pointers on positioning; I had a couple of meetings with him and the coaching staff as the camp went along. I thought he was great overall."
Birnbaum did have a couple of shaky moments in the second half when Klinsmann went back to a more traditional 4-4-2, including a near-own goal — “I swear, my heart stopped for a full minute, or it felt like it, at least,” he recalled.
“I thought he did great,” noted Olsen. "Especially under the circumstances of a new formation, particularly in the first half; there was a lot of emergency defending and they looked a bit disorganized. I thought he held up very well in those very difficult circumstances.”
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Though Birnbaum has certainly done his share of hard work to accelerate his development, his growth has certainly been fostered by the experience of being thrust into the fire alongside Boswell, one of MLS's most historically dependable central defenders.
"I don’t think I would be in the position I am now if Bobby wasn’t there in the beginning of the season last year,” said Birnbaum. "He deserves a ton of credit, he’s mentored me and taken me under his wing throughout the last year and showed me the ropes as far as how it’s done. He’s a stand-up guy off the field, too, and we’re great friends now, which helps a lot. If I mess up, he’s right there to give me pointers on how to correct them.”
Fully recovered from a knee injury picked up during his stay with the national team, Birnbaum seems eager to build on his promising start. D.C. will need him to do so, as the club will begin and end 2015 in CONCACAF Champions League play and will deal with the rigors of league and US Open Cup play throughout the year as well.
“We all have real high expectations of each other this year,” said Birnbaum. "We just want to grind out the rest of this preseason ... and just get rocking into 2015."
Added Boswell: “He came in hungry and he’s never lost that. Steve has a lot of promise – he’s still as hungry as ever. He has all the tools. He learns people’s tendencies very quickly, and when he makes a mistake he typically doesn’t make it again.
"I think those are the characteristics of great defenders – you don’t get beat the same way twice. He’s a great guy to play with, and he even manages to make me look better."