Coming into the 2015 season, Steve Birnbaum was one of D.C. United's sure things. After starring at Cal, Birnbaum fit seamlessly into the Black-and-Red's starting lineup once injuries forced Jeff Parke out early in 2014's middle third. The USMNT came calling, and the California native made his international debut against Chile in late January. On a team that could use more important starters that haven't hit their peak years yet, Birnbaum looked like a very important piece of the puzzle.
Unfortunately for United, it seems safe to say that Birnbaum didn't continue to improve in 2015. He was less consistent, and in fact spent some time sitting the bench while healthy. It would be harsh to say he regressed, and if anything United had to do more defending this year than in 2014, but he's probably further from becoming a USMNT regular now than he was at this time last year.
Oddly enough, Birnbaum actually played more minutes in 2014 - a season in which he didn't get a minute in the first third of the season - than he did this year. An ankle sprain saw him leave United's 1-0 win over the LA Galaxy after just 5 minutes, and he didn't return to the lineup until late May. Later, he was one of the players Ben Olsen decided to rotate out after the six-game winless streak towards the end of the season. Birnbaum ended up sitting out in home wins against NYCFC and Chicago, and only subbed in against Columbus late on for Taylor Kemp.
A deeper look into United's overall defensive performance indicates the uneven nature of Birnbaum's 2015 season. Across both regular season and playoff games, United gave up roughly 1.30 goals per game; in Birnbaum's starts (subtracting the 5 minutes he played against LA), that figure jumps up to 1.39. However, that includes the insane 6-4 game against RSL, and United gave up more than one goal only 9 times in the 23 starts counted toward that figure.
Individually, Birnbaum's numbers look a bit better. He had more interceptions per 90 minutes played (3.3) than anyone on the team. That's impressive given that his role alongside Bobby Boswell is to be the defender who looks to cover underneath rather than the guy who steps into the midfield to pick the ball off early. Among players appearing more than 10 times this season, Birnbaum won more aerial battles per game than anyone. That's not just limited to center backs, either; I mean all MLS players.
While that is clearly a function of how United plays, it's also a good sign that Birnbaum is an elite MLS player in the air. He wins about 72.5% of the headers he goes up for, which of the league leaders in terms of aerials contested is a percentage only bettered by Kendall Waston.
Obviously there are things Birnbaum needs to improve on. Consistency is at the top of the list, and it's fair to say he could be more comfortable with the ball at his feet (of course, Ben Olsen could also warm up to the idea of letting his center backs connect more shorter passes, but we're not evaluating the coach just yet). However, it's also fair to say that Birnbaum is comfortably the most talented center back on United's roster, and he has plenty of room to keep improving.
My gut tells me this one is a pretty easy choice, but one person's gut is not what this series is built around. So: