12015_isi_birnbaumsteven_usmntjd011515116 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
U.S. Men's National Team

Birnbaum Confident He Can 'Do His Thing' with USMNT

The 23-year-old California native parlayed a breakout rookie season with D.C. United into a call-up with the U.S. national team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke to the impressive central defender.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 20, 2015
9:46 AM
CAMP IS UNDERWAY for the United States national team, and the roster assembled in Carson, Calif., features many young players trying to catch Jurgen Klinsman’s eye and to earn a spot on next year’s U-23 Olympic team.

Each year, however, there are at least a few players to who use the camp as a springboard to become regular members of the full national team. Last year it was DeAndre Yedlin who turned January camp into a recurring role with the senior team; in years past Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Geoff Cameron all did the same.

This year D.C. United central defender Steve Birnbuam is aiming to be among those who move into Klinsmann’s plans for this summer’s Gold Cup and beyond. Looking at what he accomplished in his rookie season, he would seem to have as good a chance as any to stick with the team.

“Birnbaum is an absolute stud," D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen told the media ahead of a game in October. "I cannot believe the way he performs week in, week out at his age."

Indeed, after being drafted with the second overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, Birnbaum eventually worked his way into United’s starting lineup and was an integral part of the team’s remarkable turnaround. The team managed just three wins in 2013; it finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2014.

Birnbaum was a finalist for Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award but narrowly lost to FC Dallas forward Tesho Akindele. Both players earned an even better prize: their first call-ups to the United States national team.

Birnbaum, ranked No. 64 in the latest ASN 100, knows his first national team camp will be competitive and intense, but he is both appreciative of the opportunity and confident he will make the most of it.

“I always want to be the best at what I am doing,” Birnbaum told American Soccer now just prior to the opening of camp. “I am a pretty competitive guy. I don’t think I should set my goals anything short of being on the World Cup squad.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation in D.C.,” he added. “To be called into the national team has always been dream of mine. I feel pretty lucky to be in the situation that I am in right now. They had a great support group to get me into this position to do my thing.”

A year ago, Birnbaum was expected to be among the top selections in the MLS draft after an impressive career at the University of California-Berkeley. Due to an injury in 2012, he ended up staying at California for five years and was 23-years-old by the start of his first professional season.

With MLS academies emerging and more top prospects choosing the homegrown player route, Birnbaum was older than most MLS rookies last year, and he's OK with that. In fact, he felt that his maturity helped him handle the demands of the professional game.

“It depends on each person’s situation but I think for me it was a great decision to stay in school as long as I did,” Birnbaum said. “I had a great coach in Kevin Grimes and he taught me how to be a professional at Cal so I was prepared to be a professional player. It depends on the person but for me it was the best possible decision I could have made.

"You go through all the ups and downs and you learn how to deal with them. When I got the call to start for my first D.C. United game, I felt prepared with all the situations that were happening around me. I kind of just performed and did my thing.”

Throughout most of last season Birnbaum was partnered with Bobby Boswell in central defense, and the pair flourished. Birnbaum earned a name for himself and Boswell landed on the MLS Best XI team for the first time since 2006. Boswell recalls that after Birnbaum fought through an initial adjustment period, his rookie partner soon began to excel.

“I think he's an experienced guy even though he was a rookie,” Boswell told ASN. “He was 23. He didn't have the youth of most rookies. That is a compliment, not a bad thing. He was beyond his years in terms of what people think of as a rookie. For me, he has all of these physical tools that are really good. At our position the hardest thing to get is experience. Once you get more experience you, really grow as a player. He had a great year. He was able to learn on the fly.

“In terms of his ceiling, that is to be determined. But he has all of the natural tools,” Boswell added. “He's fast, he can jump, he can be physical, perhaps his best [attribute] is his work rate—how hard he works each day in and day out. He's only going to get better.

“I've played with a lot of national team centerbacks and he definitely has the pedigree for it.”

Despite his growing reputation as a top MLS defender, Birnbaum has never really been a staple of U.S. youth national teams. The Irvine, Calif., native attended a few U.S. U-18 and U-20 camps but was never part of a major tournament or was a staple of U.S. Soccer’s youth national team development.

“I always wanted to be a regular in those squads," Birnbaum said. "I wasn’t upset about it but obviously I wanted to be a part of them.

For now, Birnbaum is focused on the present and making the most out of the weeks ahead. He admits that it caught him by surprise when Jurgen Klinsmann called to invite him to camp.

Now, his expectations have changed.

“During the season I didn’t think too much about" a call-up, Birnbaum said. “I was trying not to think about it at all really—I was just focused on what we were doing in the season. Then I heard there were talks about it and that maybe I would be involved in camp. I thought it was a long shot to be honest.

"When the call came I couldn’t have been more excited.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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