Five months ago, Steve Birnbaum found himself on the fringes of the U.S. national team picture. With just one international appearance to his name and a slew of veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, the D.C. United defender wasn’t expecting Jurgen Klinsmann to come calling anytime soon.
As the U.S. squad gathered for its annual winter camp in Southern California, Birnbaum was omitted from the initial roster — no surprise after a sophomore MLS campaign that saw him battle through a left ankle injury and late-season benching.
But Klinsmann had second thoughts and extended an invite to Birnbaum just three days before the start of camp. Birnbaum’s response? A late winner off the bench in a friendly against Iceland, followed by 90 impressive minutes versus Canada. Those performances led to a starting assignment for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in March, which he navigated with poise.
“I wasn’t expecting to get called in to January camp this year,” Birnbaum said. “When I did, I kind of took the opportunity and ran with it. To get called in again for the qualifiers was a great feeling, and to be able to actually play in one was even better. It’s kind of been quick, but I don’t expect anything less from myself. I set my standards pretty high.”
Now, Birnbaum finds himself on the 23-man roster for the Copa America Centenario, the regional championship that kicks off on Friday when the U.S. faces Colombia in Santa Clara, California.
Getting to take part in the prestigious tournament, which features the top teams from North and South America, continues a meteoric rise for Birnbaum over the past two years. While 14 of his Copa America teammates were a part of the U.S. squad that competed at the World Cup in 2014, Birnbaum was a rookie still waiting to make his professional debut when Klinsmann picked his team for that tournament.
The 25-year-old has since developed into one of the top center backs in MLS, boasting dominant aerial prowess, underestimated speed and growing leadership qualities.
“He’s taken a big step forward, at least through his presence with this group, on the field and in the locker room, and that’s a natural progression for a guy with his characteristics,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s an exciting time for him, but he’s got to make sure he’s staying grounded and sticking to what makes him great, and that’s his desire to defend and high focus. If he does that, he’ll have success.”
It speaks to Klinsmann’s belief in Birnbaum that the player was selected to the Copa America team over Omar Gonzalez, a World Cup veteran who starts for Mexican champion Pachuca, and Matt Miazga, a promising prospect for English Premier League power Chelsea.
His steady outing in the 4-0 win over Guatemala put Birnbaum in the driver’s seat for a roster slot, though, and strong performances for United over the past two months sealed the deal.
“Steve Birnbaum has had a tremendous learning curve since a year or two [ago],” Klinsmann told reporters last month. “We had the pleasure to work with him very, very intensely in the January camp, and he left an amazing impression. But also how he jumped in against Guatemala was very, very good.”
Birnbaum added: “I tried not to think about too much and just leave it in the back of my mind in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but I just figured if I kept doing what I was doing in the games for D.C. that I’d have a decent chance of getting called back in.”
Although Birnbaum still has only played five national team matches, he has never looked out of his depth. Adding to his comfort level during the Copa America is the presence of former United teammate Perry Kitchen, his roommate for the tournament.
The Cal product also will feel at home in Friday’s opener, with roughly 20 friends and family members set to attend the tournament opener in Santa Clara, an hour south of the campus and a six-hour drive from his hometown of Irvine.
Whether he sees the field Friday remains up in the air. Birnbaum likely will sit behind Geoff Cameron as the right center back in Klinsmann’s four-man defense during the Copa America, with his ability to play right back also an asset.
Even if he isn’t called upon against Colombia, Birnbaum should be summoned at some point in a tournament with short turnarounds between matches and the potential for suspensions due to yellow card accumulation.
From the U.S. coaching staff to the D.C. locker room, there is plenty of confidence in a player who has become a college star, an MLS standout and, now, a national team regular — raising his game each step of the way.
“He doesn’t usually make the same mistake twice, which is a great quality to have,” said United captain Bobby Boswell, Birnbaum’s center back partner. “Definitely being around that caliber of players will only escalate his game because he seems to exceed things once he gets to the next level, and hopefully that level is a starter for the U.S. men’s national team.”