Birnbaum, 30, missed the final eight games of the 2020 season due to ankle trouble, and he had an initial procedure on his ankle two months ago, with the aim of having him back at full fitness by the end of the preseason. However, citing a need “to decompress nerves and remove part of the talus bone with chronic inflammation,” Birnbaum underwent this second surgery in Green Bay, WI sometime last week.
Unfortunately I had to have a second procedure on my ankle. Surgery went well! Looking forward to a speedy recovery and getting back on the field with the guys! pic.twitter.com/BeZS81KxRf— Steven Birnbaum (@StevenBirnbaum) March 15, 2021
Before his injury, Birnbaum had been on a long run of consecutive starts, barely missing a second of regular season action for the Black-and-Red. In 2018 and 2019 he started every single game United played in MLS, playing the full 90 minutes in all but one of those 68 regular season and two playoff games. That streak carried into 2020, where he played the full 90 in all of United’s first seven games before the ankle injury first pushed him to the bench for five games through late August and into September. Birnbaum returned to play three more games, but did not appear again after a road loss to Atlanta United on October 3.
Birnbaum is the third presumptive starter whose availability for next month’s season opener is in question. Bill Hamid had sports hernia surgery in mid-January, and has returned to training, though Steven Goff at the Washington Post has reported that he is “a few weeks” from participating at 100%. Felipe Martins tore his ACL at the start of September 2020, and is reportedly on course for a return sometime in May.
If new head coach Hernán Losada wants to pursue playing with a back three, his options are quite limited until Birnbaum returns. Donovan Pines, Frederic Brillant, and new loan addition Brendan Hines-Ike would be the likely starters in that case, but the only true depth would be rookie Michael DeShields (who, due to an ill-timed back injury that cost him his 2020 ACC season, hasn’t played a formal game since 2019).
However, Losada has expressed a willingness to choose a formation that best fits his available players, and it would not be a major shock if United began the season in a formation featuring four defenders as an adjustment to Birnbaum’s injury.