Steven Birnbaum has been on a bit of a roller coaster in recent years. In 2017 he went from a winter USMNT call-up and being handed more responsibility — both in terms of being a leader and with more demands being placed on him has a passer — to being yet another question mark for D.C. United. Fans had every right to wonder whether it was an anomaly, or whether an increasingly more demanding league had surpassed him, or if it was something else.
Things got trickier for Birnbaum before the season began. While Birnbaum was the day-to-day captain for the first 4.5 months of the season, Ben Olsen declined to formally name him captain, essentially demoting him to interim captain. On top of that, he had to adjust to a new partner in central defense (Frederic Brillant), new players at right and left back (Oniel Fisher and Joseph Mora), a new defensive midfielder (Junior Moreno) in front of him, and a new goalkeeper (David Ousted) behind him. Oh, and there was that whole “grinding it out on the road until July” thing to deal with.
Fortunately, Birnbaum largely bounced back. While he may not quite be the subject of much USMNT chatter at the moment (though, Gregg Berhalter has had some success with some broadly similar players in Columbus...), Birnbaum looked far more like his old self than having the struggles of 2017. He did so even as United’s style of play became more open and more demanding for center backs, and even as the aforementioned list of new faces around him saw frequent changes and as Olsen changed his side’s formation.
Even when United was shipping too many goals to win frequently during their road odyssey, it seemed like the problems were less on Birnbaum and more about an inability to defend consistently through the midfield. United didn’t get standout defensive midfielder Russell Canouse back from a preseason injury until July, and they didn’t change full-time to playing 4231 home and away until mid-August. If the 2017 version of Birnbaum had been around during those first 20 games...yikes.
There are numerous ways to back up the idea that Birnbaum returned to form this year. There’s the standard eyeball test, where few frequent observers would put up any argument to the idea that he was much, much better in 2018 than in 2017. There are good old fashioned results: United made the playoffs, and gave up 10 fewer goals despite also becoming attack-minded enough to nearly double their goals scored total.
There are also data points: United conceded just 12 goals in their final 14 games, a stretch that offered virtually no room for error. Birnbaum won more aerial duels than anyone in MLS, and by a pretty wide margin. He also won a higher percentage of those duels than he ever has before. Per WhoScored data, he was harder to beat on the dribble (only 0.2 times per 90 minutes) than he’s ever been. He got back to being a goalscoring threat, notching two goals, and had easily his best season on the ball, completing over 81% of his passes (despite attempting about 5 more passes per game than he ever has before).
Maybe the most impressive thing about his season, though, is more ephemeral. Birnbaum had to accept going from being the team captain to being a player on a team with no captain. The concept of “the armband” is one we probably put too much weight on, but at the same time, telling someone they are no longer the formal captain will always come with some kind of emotional obstacle to overcome.
Birnbaum didn’t put up any sort of fuss, and just went about his business leading the team even while he was told he wasn’t formally the team’s captain. Later, when Wayne Rooney arrived, much was made of how gracefully the former Manchester United and England captain dealt with the situation, waiting a few weeks to integrate before accepting the armband from Olsen.
However, what has perhaps not gotten enough attention is the fact that Birnbaum was equally graceful in this scenario. Rather than resenting the change or the speedy anointment of a newcomer, Birnbaum welcomed Rooney, apparently participating earnestly when Rooney wanted to pick his brain. What could have been a minefield (think David Beckham and the 2007 LA Galaxy) became a potentially revolutionary change in culture inside the team’s locker room. Birnbaum surely didn’t do this on his own, but a less secure and confident reaction on his part could have truly delayed or derailed those changes.
Finally, back to data: Birnbaum played every second of the MLS season for United, one of only four field players in the league to do so. Durability is no little thing, especially at center back, and United surely benefited from the stability of knowing Birnbaum would be there every game. It’s also a major shift for Birnbaum, who has missed at least 8 games in every season of his professional career.
I doubt there’s too much mystery when it comes to this question, but we want to hear from you. Do you think this year’s version of Birnbaum is who he’s going to be in the future, or are you skeptical?
Do you want Steven Birnbaum back for the 2019 season?
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