After spending nearly a month with the US national team for their annual January camp, playing all 90 minutes in friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica, center back Steve Birnbaum was out on the practice field with D.C. United on Monday. Fresh off of his 10th and 11th caps for the USMNT, Birnbaum joined up with his United teammates at the tail end of their first Florida preseason trip.
Despite his recent successes with the national team, Birnbaum was excited to be back out with his club, rubbing shoulders with the teammates he’s been with for the past three seasons.
“It’s good to be back with the guys,” Birnbaum told B&RU at the team’s hotel on Monday. “I loved getting down here and having my first training back with them today. It’s like riding a bike, with all the guys and fitting in.”
For the last couple of weeks, Birnbaum has been learning the ropes of a Bruce Arena-led national team, as the venerable coach ran the first January camp of his second term. Birnbaum, who had participated in the previous two January camps under Jurgen Klinsmann, was rewarded with 180 minutes against the Serbian Eagles and the Reggae Boyz, the only US player to play every second of both games.
Compared to camps past, there was a different feel this time around. Following the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to start the World Cup qualifying hexagonal, the US faces an uphill battle to qualify for the World Cup next year in Russia. Games next month against Honduras and Panama now are the utmost importance, with the US last in the final group of six countries. The high-pressure situation made for a different camp experience.
“It was positive, but there was a bit more of sense of urgency,” Birnbaum said of the camp. “It was intriguing to see how [Arena] went about it. We’re preparing for the games. Because they are must-win games, and [Arena] wanted to get a feel for the guys in camp.”
Arena’s choice to hand Birnbaum two 90 minute appearances, during which the US did not concede a goal, might indicate that the center back is getting a favorable look from his new national team manager.
“I was excited to play the first game, and then Bruce told me I was playing the next game, and asked if I could go the whole time,” Birnbaum retold. “And I said yeah, of course. You always want to be a steady guy he can rely on. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Now back with the Black-and-Red, Birnbaum is looking to pick up where 2016. Or at least where the team was before the 4-2 loss to the Montreal Impact in the playoffs. With most of that team still intact, that process will be easier to start the 2017 season.
‘Obviously the playoffs weren’t great, we didn’t play well there,” said Birnbaum. “But second half of the season, we found our rhythm, and I thought we were playing well. So we’re hoping that once we get back into the start of this season, we pick up where we left off and get going.”
That is, with just one slight difference now: “There are higher expectations going into this year.”
Part of those raised expectations lay on the shoulders of Birnbaum himself. In addition to working himself into Arena’s roster, Birnbaum also signed a new multi-year deal with the Black-and-Red back in December. He was about to enter the final season of his rookie contract, but will now be with United in the foreseeable future.
When United came calling to extend his stay in the nation’s capital, Birnbaum had little hesitancy in signing the new contract. “I wanted to stay in D.C. It’s a good fit for me. Everyone here did what they could to make it work, and that was on my side too,” Birnbaum said.
That said, Birnbaum did take a look at his options overseas. There were rumors during last summer that he might try his luck in Europe, but none of the teams offering were the right fit for the center back.
“I wanted to see what was going on overseas, if there was a possibility over there. And it just wasn’t the right time for me,” said Birnbaum. “Maybe that could happen in the future, but as of now, I’m happy to be with D.C., and be committed for a while.”
The suitors were “...some teams that I don’t think I was completely interested in going to,” Birnbaum said of his offers from overseas clubs. “And in reality, I wanted to stay in D.C. D.C. is a great city, and I’m excited to be a part of it with the stadium coming soon.”
United has already played two of their three friendlies in the first leg of preseason. A 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday was preceded by a 6-0 win over the US under-17 national team last week. Wednesday’s friendly against Jönköpings Södra IF is Birnbaum’s chance to ward off competition to a position he took over in the middle of 2014.
“My first practice today, everyone was flying. Everyone’s fighting for spots in preseason,” said Birnbaum. “I wouldn’t think any spot is safe on the team. Competition is a healthy thing, especially at this time of the year.”