A Big Question: Can Steve Birnbaum organize the backline?
Birnbaum's been a mostly very good MLS center back for about half a decade now. He is both big and strong, quick and fast. He is dominant in the air. He has developed into an adept and reliable distributor. He is, at age 28, very much in his prime.
Is he a backline leader, though? It's tough to say for sure, as for basically the entirety of his MLS career he's been paired with a more experienced partner – first Bobby Boswell, and in 2018 Frederic Brillant. There's always been an old head out there to do a lot of the problem solving.
Brillant, to his credit, had a pretty good year for D.C. But he is a limited distributor and an even more limited athlete; any time he's out there, United are at least partially hiding him from opposing attackers. Usually that means Birnbaum can't be overly aggressive trying to make plays off the backline – Brillant simply can't cover for him – and that the near-side fullback can't push too far forward on the overlap.
This is not exactly fatal, but it is limiting, and the last thing a team with so many exciting attacking pieces should settle for is limiting their dynamism because of their central defense.
If Birnbaum can be the old head, then Brillant can ease into the "veteran-off-the-bench" role he seems best suited for, while maybe Chris Durkin or as-yet-unsigned-Homegrown-CB Donovan Pines steps into the XI at CB. That would give D.C. more flexibility, and with that comes a higher ceiling – one that might reach all the way to the last game of the season.