DC United's Birnbaum earns "big, big chance" with US on Copa America stage

DALLAS – Arguably one of the biggest surprises on the US national team's Copa America roster unfolded along the back line.

Instead of veteran Omar Gonzalez, it was D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum who got the nod from Jurgen Klinsmann & Co.

“Steve Birnbaum has [had] a tremendous learning curve since a year or two,” Klinsmann said as the team prepared for Wednesday's warm-up friendly vs. Ecuador (8 pm ET; ESPN2, UniMás, UDN). “We had the pleasure to work with him very, very intensely in the January camp, and he left an amazing impression. But also how he jumped in against Guatemala was very, very good.”

Gonzalez is currently tied up in the Liga MX playoffs with Pachuca, who've advanced to the championship final vs. Monterrey. That didn’t make the decision any easier for Klinsmann to leave the former LA Galaxy star off the Copa roster, however.

“Always when you cut down a group of 40 names to 23, you get into 50-50 situations,” Klinsmann said. “It’s not fair to the players playing to point out weaknesses, because at the same time they have their strengths. Omar has tremendous strengths.”

Yet it’s Birnbaum who will be in the mix during Copa America in a few weeks, largely due to flashes of solid play in his limited minutes in the red, white and blue.

“I’ve just proven to the coaches what I can do in the games leading up, and I think I’ve been having a pretty good season so far,” Birnbaum said. “So I’m just happy to be here.”

As far as what distinguishes him from other defenders in consideration for the roster spot, Birnbaum said what he brings is clear.

“It’s pretty obvious I think I’m pretty good in the air,” Birnbaum said. “I’m a simple player and hard worker, and I’m just trying to show them what I can do in these trainings and try to get into the games.”

Birnbaum’s success this season has sparked a few transfer rumors, including recent reports of interest from Feyenoord, Maccabi Haifa, and Borussia Dortmund. He said he’s open to anything if the opportunity is right, though none of that is on his mind right now as he readies for an opportunity to make a statement on American soil next month.

“I’m not really paying attention to it right now. I’m focused on this,” Birnbaum said of the chatter. “If my agents want to deal with that, they can do that. But I’m focused on Copa America right now.”

Klinsmann hopes Birnbaum has his eyes on the prize, too, knowing the opportunity could be a huge one for one of the newer national teamers.

“He has some elements that we really like, and that’s why he’s here,” Klinsmann said. “And now he has the big, big chance to show that on the big stage.”