Programming note: This summer in this space, we’ll take a look at a different American player each week instead of doing some sort of update on multiple Yanks abroad. This will be an opportunity to delve into some players we don’t normally feature in this space and evaluate their chances with the USMNT, their future prospects, other important things to note with them, or any combination of the three.
Club: D.C. United (MLS)
Regardless of how much he plays for the United States this summer, Steve Birnbaum has seen his stock rise over the past year more than just about any other American player. The third-year MLS center back has been a consistent starter for his club since he joined out of college, but he really only entered the spotlight this year with some standout performances for the USMNT.
A California native, Birnbaum grew up in Orange County and made his debut for the United States’ youth teams in 2008, playing for both the U-18s and the U-20s at the age of 17. The following year, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he would develop into a first-team All-American over his five years at the school (he was there an extra season due to an injury suffered at the beginning of his senior campaign). In his final season at Cal, Birnbaum scored 10 goals, an astounding number for a center back, and anchored a back line that allowed just 20 goals all season.
These impressive numbers and performances earned Birnbaum plenty of attention heading into the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, and D.C. jumped at the opportunity to grab him with the No. 2 pick. He was initially loaned out to D.C.’s USL Pro affiliate, the Richmond Kickers, where he made his professional debut, but that stay didn’t last long, as an injury to United center back Jeff Parke forced the club to call Birnbaum back from his loan.
He hasn’t looked back since. Birnbaum was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year after making 21 appearances for United in 2014, then made his USMNT debut in a January 2015 loss to Chile. He then made 31 appearances in all competitions for D.C. in 2015, scoring his first three professional goals.
At the beginning of this year, Birnbaum was called into Jurgen Klinsmann’s January camp, and he made a major impact. In his second-ever appearance for the national team, Birnbaum entered at halftime, tallied an assist on Michael Orozco’s tying goal, and scored the winning goal on a 90th-minute header to lift the Americans to a 3-2 win over Iceland. He played the full 90 minutes a few days later in a 1-0 win over Canada, which he has done twice more since, in a 4-0 World Cup Qualifying win over Guatemala and a 1-0 Copa America preparation win over Ecuador. With Birnbaum on the pitch this season, the USMNT has allowed just one goal in three and a half games.
Combined with more steady performances for United, Birnbaum has seen a sharp increase in European attention.
No matter whether Birnbaum stays or goes, and no matter where his journey takes him, he’s become a valuable asset to both his club and country. He didn’t appear in the opening game of the Copa America, but some minutes in the tournament would likely bolster his stock even more. Regardless, if he does see the pitch, it’s a good bet that the USMNT will be sound defensively when he’s out there.