D.C. United may have started their preseason late last month in Florida, but Steve Birnbaum started his season a tad earlier in California, as part of the United States men's national team camp held every January. And he then scored the game-winning goal in the USA's first game against Iceland and played out of position (on a Jurgen Klinsmann-coached team? The Devil you say!) at right back in the second game against Canada and received praise for his work in that game, and is one of a few players who may have helped their cause in camp, particularly with the World Cup Qualifiers and Copa America tournament to be held this year, Birnbaum may be seeing some sort of senior team time somewhere in 2016.
This is where I cynically joke that this could be an inverse for Birnbaum, and that we should be we concerned. You see, last year about this time, he missed a US game with Panama because of a knee injury, then injured his ankle in the third game of the season against the LA Galaxy and was not seen on the field again until two months later against the Portland Timbers. Part of this time, admittedly, was due to the impressive play of Kofi Opare. Yet while 2015 went off to a bad start, his season, HIS season, was better than the 2014 campaign that earned him a Rookie of the Year finalist spot. His physicality has gotten better, whether it is fouling or getting fouled, and as people bore witness two in those two US games (and we all know), Birdbomb is a beast aerially. This will be touched on in the coming days, but Birnbaum's work in the air is already among the best in MLS, but he won almost 50% more aerial duels in 2015 than in 2014, while maintaining solid statistics defensively and in pass accuracy out of his area. He won more aerials than anyone in MLS in fact. So, if a disappointing end to Birnbaum's 2014 January camp led to a great year, a great 2015 January camp will lead to a poor one, right?
Probably, well, hopefully, not. He still probably has some things he wants to work on, be it a better interceptor of the ball (even if being in the Top 20 of center backs last year is nothing to sneeze at), or a better passer of the ball. But more importantly, he needs to take ownership of center back and make it his own. Bobby Boswell has a club-held option in 2017, and with Opare signed to a multiyear extension (a month before Boswell), 2017 has and should be a time where Birnbaum should take over Boswell's role of backline organizer and elevate his game even further. If there is any indication, D.C. has certainly been thinking about it, almost selecting a center back (Jonathan Campbell) with their second first round pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft before Campbell went to the Chicago Fire. D.C subsequently selected Liam Doyle, another big center back who was released last week. But the message appears to be for Birnbaum that the increased role is there to be taken.
When we were caking or goating Birdbomb, his vote was an easy one, and he appears to be another in a line of D.C. United players with some form of international presence on the horizon, with Bill Hamid being the other. And like Hamid, while Steve Birnbaum has done a lot so far, that we may not have seen everything yet may be the most tantalizing thing about him.