- - Thursday, March 17, 2016

Steve Birnbaum was quite the versatile athlete growing up in Southern California. Baseball, basketball, soccer — he embraced it all. But that doesn’t mean he embraced all of it.

“I was a shortstop in baseball, so I loved to field balls, but then I didn’t like sitting down and waiting to go to bat,” Birnbaum recalled. “It was the same with basketball. You have to come out if you foul too many times — which I did.”

So, Birnbaum gravitated toward the beautiful game. In earning a scholarship to play soccer at Cal, he followed in the footsteps of his mother. Among the earliest athletes to utilize Title IX, Peggy Schmidt played softball and volleyball at Missouri.

A dedicated athlete, she carried that same commitment to life as a single mother nurturing her son’s own sporting endeavors. When Birnbaum got the call for U.S. national team duty this past January, she was there to drive him to the suburban Los Angeles camp — just like the good ol’ days.

“She’s super driven and very competitive,” Birnbaum said. “My drive and wanting to compete at the highest level has always been a dream of mine, and I think that comes a lot from her. I can’t thank her enough for taking me to games on weekends and driving me around.”

After a second consecutive offseason with the U.S. national team, Birnbaum has carried raised expectations into the MLS campaign with D.C. United.

As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann considers his squad for a pair of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala later this month, the 25-year-old defender will want to impress when United (0-1-1) welcomes the Colorado Rapids (1-1-0) on Sunday to RFK Stadium for the team’s MLS home opener.

“I’ve been very happy with Steven’s mentality after he came back,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “I think it rejuvenated him. I think it got him excited for the season and about his role with this team. … He’s a guy that has leadership qualities, but first and foremost he has to be a defender and make sure week in, week out, that he’s one of the better center backs in this league.”

Although Birnbaum drew plaudits for his national team debut against Chile in January 2015, he was surprised to earn a recall this winter. Last year ended up being a bumpy one for the 6-foot-2 center back, who missed nine games with a left ankle sprain suffered in March.

Upon returning from injury, Birnbaum found himself playing out of position and even relegated to the bench at times after backup Kofi Opare had stepped up in his absence.

Left off the initial U.S. roster this winter, Birnbaum was preparing to leave his hometown of Irvine and fly back to Washington when he heard from Klinsmann on Jan. 8 — three days before the start of camp.

“I knew it was a long shot this year to get the call from the beginning, but I guess there is always a chance it’ll happen,” Birnbaum said. “So, I was just grateful and thankful that I had the opportunity, and I tried to make the best of it.”

Seemingly an afterthought from Klinsmann, Birnbaum was anything but by the time the camp concluded. With his mother, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law and plenty of friends in attendance, Birnbaum headed home the 90th-minute winner in a 3-2 triumph over Iceland on Jan. 31. Five days later, he showcased his flexibility by going the full 90 minutes at right back in a 1-0 win against Canada.

It was confidence that carried over as Birnbaum reported for United’s preseason in February. Although captain Bobby Boswell has served as the leading voice in the back since re-joining the club in 2014, Birnbaum has stepped up the vocal aspect of his game.

He also has worked on quickness to sharpen his one-on-one defending, and a tactical tweak that saw Birnbaum switch from the left side of central defense to the right has helped him distribute the ball more efficiently.

With 50 MLS appearances and three national team matches under his belt, Birnbaum knows the time has come for him to complete the transition from prospect to polished professional.

“He has always been someone who is very good in the air, he steps hard, he’s a naturally aggressive player — he has always had those attributes,” defender Taylor Kemp said. “But as the seasons have gone on, you’ve seen him become more comfortable with the ball, you’ve seen him directing people in front of him better and he has become a very, very good center back in the league.”

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