2016 started out great for D.C. United center back Steve Birnbaum. It began in rainy, cold Southern California wearing the red, white and blue as he was the savior for the United States Men’s National Team in their 3-2 January victory against Iceland. Providing the assist on the equalizing goal as well as the game-winning goal from a snap header, Birnbaum fully arrived as a promising center back on the international scene. It was the start of a busy year representing the USMNT, as Birnbaum made 8 appearances for the senior team, including 2 appearances in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
For United, the 25-year-old defender was in the lineup almost every single time he was available. Birnbaum had 26 appearances in league play, playing every minute of those matches. Of the 8 matches he missed, 6 were for international duty and the other 2 were matches where coach Ben Olsen decided to rest him. The U.S. international also started and played every minute of the ScotiaBank CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matches against Queretaro.
Simply put, Steve Birnbaum was our best center back in 2016. He was steady in the back for most of the season, providing cover at times when we were cycling between goalkeepers with injuries to Bill Hamid and Andrew Dykstra. The consistency issues that he had in 2015 were mostly a thing of the past. With him playing regularly for club and country, Birnbaum’s game skyrocketed at key moments where it was sorely needed.
2016 saw Birnbaum feature more on the attacking end as well, scoring 3 goals and adding 2 assists on the season. He took 33 shots on the season with 12 shots on goal, both numbers greater than he had in his previous two seasons combined. His ability to provide aerial play in the box on corners and free kicks constantly frustrated opponents and contributed to a Black-and-Red goal total that outpaced their 2015 output by 9 goals. His effort didn’t go unseen throughout the league, as his efforts were recognized by being named to the 2016 MLS All Star team. He played the second half for the MLS All Stars in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal.
The future is now at center back, and Steve Birnbaum is likely the first choice at center back for 2017. He will need to continue to improve his marking on the defensive end. A few times late in the season he was caught flat as an attacker beat him to the ball and scored, and he will have to work on his marking in the defensive third. He will have to shut down the best attackers on the opposing team every single week, and with his still-new status as one of the USMNT’s center back options, attackers are going to challenge him. However, if he can continue to mature into a wall on defense and an aerial option on offense, his stock will rise even further than it already has. ‘
There is talk about whether a transfer abroad is in the works, as persistent rumors of interest from the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Borussia Dortmund dominated the Black-and-Red internet throughout the season. Still, this question should be an easy one: