After tough 2015, Steve Birnbaum starts new year in spectacular fashion for US national team: "Cool to do that in front of my hometown"

CARSON, Calif.—Steve Birnbaum was disappointed when he wasn't on Jurgen Klinsmann's initial list for the US national team's annual “January” camp this year, but he understood.

The second-year center back battled injuries early last season with D.C. United and never found the form that propelled him in his first MLS campaign, when he was a Rookie of the Year finalist and received his first national team call-up.

Then injuries opened the door just before everyone reported three weeks ago at StubHub Center, and Birnbaum's done all he could to impress Klinsmann and his staff since, punctuating a superb camp performance by playing the pivotal role in the Yanks' 3-2 victory Sunday afternoon over Iceland.

Birnbaum, who grew up in Irvine, California (about 30 miles south of the stadium), assisted Michael Orozco's 59th-minute equalizer, then rose high above the Icelandic defense to head home a Michael Bradley corner kick in the 90th minute as the US prevailed in the first of two StubHub Center friendlies to kick off 2016.

“Just happy that I was able to contribute on the attacking side,” Birnbaum said afterward. “Just happy we won the game, and then it's great also that I had a bunch of family here and friends. It was cool to do that in front of my hometown, basically.”

Birnbaum, who turned 25 eight days ago, experienced a whirlwind 14 months after D.C. United nabbed him out of the University of California with the No. 2 selection in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. He started 24 league games, including playoffs, got the call from Klinsmann in December and made his national team debut in a 3-2 loss at Chile a little more than a year ago.

The road since has been rockier.

“Getting called into the first camp [last year] and getting my first cap was great,” Birnbaum said. “And then I got injured, and it was downhill, and didn't really hear back from them. It was an up-and-down season at D.C.”

He missed two months with an ankle injury and struggled in 23 league starts to approximate the impact he made as a rookie. He wasn't invited into this year's camp until Klinsmann added players after San Jose Earthquakes midfielders Fatai Alashe and Marc Pelosi pulled out due to injury.

“We have a pool of center backs, and they are very, very close to each other [in the hierarchy],” Klinsmann said. “And Steve was with us already last year, then he had a little bit of injury issues, [but] once a player come here and is with us, we follow them. We follow them also through their down periods. He's always there [in our considerations].

Klinsmann praised Birnbaum's determination at the outset of camp, and his ability to take advantage when an opportunity arose on the field.
Birnbaum came on at halftime as Orozco moved from central defense to left back, and Iceland took a 2-1 lead less than three minutes in. It was a weird play, with the US stopping for what they thought was a clear foul, and Iceland quickly attacking.

Aron Sigurdarson, in his international debut, ended up one-on-one with Birnbaum on the left side of the US box, then drilled a brilliant shot inside the far post.

Birnbaum said he could have defended it better:

“Probably just position my body a little more inside, have him go wide. I think [Jermaine Jones] was coming close, but that's on me.”

He was solid defensively the rest of the way, but made his biggest impact up top on set pieces.

Both of the Yanks' second-half goals came from corner kicks. On the first, Bradley's service was headed away, and Jozy Altidore tracked it down at the back of the box, then floated a cross toward the right post. Birnbaum got his head to it, sending it into the goalmouth, and an onrushing Orozco nodded it home from just in front of the goal line.

Birnbaum, left unmarked, then powered home the winner, sharply heading another Bradley corner into the net from about 8 yards.

“They were playing, like, a zone defense. It's easier for attackers to run in and get a head start on the ball,” Birnbaum said. “I kind of knew that Michael was going to float it up there, that I could win it over a guy standing still. So it was easy that way.”

Altidore said he was happy for Birnbaum:

“It's great for a guy like Steve, because he came in and did well. Even last year, he came in, he did well, didn't come back in at all for qualifying or anything like that. So for him to come back in this year and keep his head down, keep working hard, I'm pleased for him to get that moment.”