It's been an eventful year for Steve Birnbaum. At this time in 2014, he was just getting his professional career started with D.C. United. With veterans Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke ahead of him on the depth chart and an admittedly uneven preseason, Birnbaum didn't make an appearance in United's first 13 games. He did get some matches in, playing a couple of times with the Richmond Kickers of the USL-PRO.
Look at him now, though: After replacing Parke and taking over in central defense for the rest of the season, Birnbaum was a big part of why United tied with the LA Galaxy for fewest goals conceded in MLS last year. Tonight, he reached his greatest height yet: A first-ever cap for the United States national team.
While the end result wasn't what Birnbaum or USMNT fans would want - yet another halftime lead dissolved into a 3-2 defeat - there was still a lot to like about the former California Golden Bear's performance. Despite playing against one of the world's most attack-minded teams and having to deal with a shape he's never seen before - when Chile plays a 343, they include a diamond midfielder and let their wingbacks go forward regularly - Birnbaum drew wide praise for his overall performance, particularly in the first half.
In fact, it only took about 15 minutes for it to become crystal clear that the only defensive player truly suited to the 3412 Jurgen Klinsmann started the game with was Birnbaum. Jermaine Jones had issues with his positioning, his decision-making, and was a bit careless with the ball. In other words, he looked like a lifelong central midfielder suddenly playing a brand-new role. Matt Besler also struggled, though he did notch a nice assist on Brek Shea's 6th minute opener.
Birnbaum, meanwhile, kept things very simple and tidy, making a few blocks and showing great composure to intercept a cross from the right in such a manner that, despite some high pressure, the US could clear with ease. At the other end, he did well to win a header on a corner kick, but while he made good contact his shot went straight at Chile keeper Johnny Herrera.
So clearly I think Birnbaum was great in the first half, but I'm biased. Let's ask someone who isn't a United supporter:
Birnbaum has been the most steady of the three. Surprised by that.— Jared DuBois (@Jrodius) January 29, 2015
Fox sports announcer Brian Dunseth went so far as to say that Birnbaum "didn't put a foot wrong" in the early moments of the second half. However, that second half is where the US changed things up. Chile was finding a lot of space, so Klinsmann ended the 3412 experiment and moved to the diamond 442 that we've seen somewhat regularly in recent times. Birnbaum stayed in central defense, partnering Besler, while Jones moved into the midfield.
Birnbaum's solid play continued, though there were a couple of dicey moments. A cross from the right handcuffed him a bit, dropping in at hip height. Those are tough to deal with when facing your own goal, because you don't have a chance to get your foot on the ball but also would need too much time to stoop for a header. Birnbaum tried to use his thigh, but the ball had enough velocity that it almost skewed over Nick Rimando's head & into the net. Fortunately, Rimando in position to calmly grab the ball and keep the score at 2-1.
Chile would equalize in the 66th minute, and some folks out there tried to place the blame on Birnbaum. I won't tell you that he handled the play perfectly, but in my book the goal was down to DeAndre Yedlin making two mistakes: He got sucked forward into a bad position, and then also seemed to have no awareness of where his man was. It was less the mistake of a bad defender and more the mistake of a tired player, which given the amount of running he was forced to do in the first half made sense. Birnbaum probably had no chance to shift over and do anything about Mark Gonzalez, who ripped a quality shot across the frame of goal and past Rimando to make it 2-2.
Gonzalez was the best player on either team, and it showed again when he scored the winner in the 75th minute. This goal, for me, looked worse for Birnbaum. In no way was he the player guilty of the worst mistake; the goal involved a turnover in midfield, Besler stepping up but failing to make an interception, and a collective failure to step up. Chile's first shot was saved by a sprawling Rimando, but the rebound was not directed in an ideal manner. Still, Birnbaum was just a split second slower to react to where the ball was going than Gonzalez, who again flashed a shot across goal and in. Birnbaum got the sole of his shoe on the ball, but it was only glancing contact and may well have made the shot harder to save for Rimando.
In the end, though, it was a stronger than expected debut from a player that most people felt would end up on the bench behind Matt Hedges and possibly even Shane O'Neill. It should also be noted how much defending the US had to do:
United's other USMNT representative, Perry Kitchen, made the bench but did not get his debut. Here's hoping he gets to start in the midfield against Panama on February 8th at the StubHub! Center.