Steve Birnbaum is the consensus best senior defender in the country. He captained Cal to the #4 seed in the NCAA tournament this year. (His Golden Bears will face Patrick Mullin's Maryland side this weekend in the national quarterfinals.) He's known for size, strength and skill and will almost certainly go in the top 5 picks at next month's MLS SuperDraft. But should he go #1 to D.C. United? Let's take a closer look.
After redshirting 2012 due to an LCL injury, the fifth-year senior came back this year to earn (at least) a Hermann Trophy semifinalist nod. At 6'2" and a buck-eighty, Birnbaum certainly has the physical attributes a center back needs to succeed at the MLS level. His side recorded six clean sheets in the regular season (plus another in the NCAA tournament third round), including shutouts against then-#3 Georgetown in what was at the time considered an upset 2-0 win over the Hoyas.
Birnbaum's importance to Cal was emphasized when he missed the last two games of the regular season to an ankle injury. Cal would lose both games before rebounding upon his return for the postseason.
As for the scouts, TopDrawerSoccer.com pegs him as the third-best senior in the nation and the top senior defender. MLSSoccer.com's very early mock draft has him going at the tail end of the first round, but it was written before he returned from that ankle injury. Ives think Birnbaum will be among the first two seniors taken.
As for my thinking, I have more faith in the top defenders in this year's draft class than I do in the attackers - at least among the seniors in the crop. It's been the pattern in recent years that defenders taken in the SuperDraft tend to do better earlier and for longer than their more attacking colleagues. Given that D.C. United have needs everywhere on the field, they should take the best player with their top pick - however they want to define that, whether it's biggest upside or most able to contribute - and with the recent pattern favoring defenders over offensive players in the draft, that could very well be Birnbaum.
Marks against him: He's a senior and so, despite almost certainly being on a salary close to the league minimum next year, he will count against the salary cap. Remember that underclassmen who go through the draft are typically on Generation adidas contracts that are more lucrative than the deals seniors usually sign but that also are exempt from the league salary cap for at least the first year. He's also had some injury issues, and as a graduating fifth-year senior, he's going to be among the oldest players available in the draft, potentially leaving less room to develop than younger prospects.
But his age also means he's got experience, leading one of the best teams in the country as they played a tough schedule this year. With a team as young as United, that might be more of a feature than a defect.
What's your take on Cal's big senior? Where on the field should United be focusing with its draft pick? Be heard down in the comments.
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