View from Couch: Bumper crop of center backs controlling the MLS middle

So after all that noise, defender Steve Birnbaum will return to D.C. United. Signed to a multi-year deal Friday, the 25-year-old is among a budding crop of impressive American center backs helping to fortify MLS – and US national team – backlines while offering options on the attack.

As noted by Sam Stejskal after the announcement, Birnbaum turned in a strong 2016, setting career-bests in appearances (26), starts (26), minutes (2,340), goals (3) and assists (2) for United, also solidifying a regular slot with the US national team.

Birnbaum is known for his aerial ability, coming through with a clutch header to break his international duck with a game-winner against Iceland back in January. But don't think that's all he's got on offense:

One interesting note is the list of top aerial winners by percentage this year surprisingly didn't include Birnbaum:

But it did include Toronto FC hero Nick Hagglund, who notably put his head on one near-goal early before sending Wednesday's Eastern Conference Championship against Montreal to extra time. (As for that "Piatti" goal, we can uh … let's move on.) The Cincinnati native finally locked up a starting role heading into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, and has started all five games (480 minutes) for TFC during their run to the final, chipping in that goal and two assists.

Lest we get too caught up in the offense, a quick note that stats for defenders are notoriously tricky, and yet the quality of the above list allows us to say – perhaps obviously – that an ability to win aerials is a strong indicator of an individual's ability to impact the opposing offense.

The details are malleable: Is it intimidation? Snuffing nascent plays? Breaking up long balls before the breakaway? Who's to say? (Someone who's watched a lot of tape, that's who.) But that list contains the top five vote-getters for this season's Defender of the Year (Winner Matt Hedges, Van Damme, Sjoberg, Zimmerman, Birnbaum), along with last year's No. 2 (Waston).

FC Dallas teammates Hedges (26 years old) and Walker Zimmerman (23) have paired to wreak havoc on opposing offenses, like this notable late-season massacre:

Close to the end of the regular season, Matt Doyle laid out the case for Hedges as Defender of the Year, putting a heavy emphasis on the with/without stats: per Opta, Dallas was 13-4-9 (+17 goal differential) with Hedges … and 4-4-0 without him – including a minus-7(!) differential. Don't be surprised if my fellow Tar Heel ends up getting a long look from new USMNT coach Bruce Arena, who has repeatedly pledged to reconsider the full breadth of the player pool.

And it's likely Zimmerman joins him under Arena's discerning gaze, mostly because he mean-mugs like a … well, this:

 

Seriously, though, Zimmerman's domination in the air – he's a full 2.5 percentage points ahead of No. 2 Ken Tribbett, without conceding rough gaffes on the ground – puts him in a class of his own, and creates issues for opponents on either end of a restart. The Generation adidas product, picked No. 7 in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, was this year's top defensive performer in the Audi Player Index, and working alongside Hedges has helped him develop as an organizer with confidence.

One last player to consider is Real Salt Lake Homegrown Justen Glad, who just completed his third pro season for the Claret-and-Cobalt – at 19! It proved a breakthrough campaign for the wiry defender, who checks in at 6-foot, 145 pounds and made 27 starts this season. The solid showing indicates RSL has likely filed a no-question name into its long-term XI, and if he develops into his frame, there's potential for greatness. But for now, potential it remains.

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