As a young boy in southern California, Steve Birnbaum played youth baseball as a shortstop in talent-rich Orange County. One of his travel teammates was Matt Barkley, a quarterback at USC who was released last month by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Birnbaum also decided to eventually focus on a sport besides baseball, playing soccer at the club level and then at the University of California.
“A hotbed for soccer,” he said of Orange County. “I joined a club team when I was 9 years old: it was the Irvine Strikers. There were pretty well known throughout the area and the country. Once I made the team I was hooked.”
A member of D.C. United since 2014, defender Birnbaum has been an iron man this season and most of his career in Major League Soccer. He is the only player to appear and start in every match (a career-high 31) this season for D.C. United and he has played in 126 MLS matches, with 124 starts, in his career.
“I always try to make myself available and stay healthy,” he said at RFK Stadium on Monday after practice. “For me, that is what I have focused on a lot this year; taking care of my body and I think that helps my play.”
The top six teams in the Eastern Conference make the playoffs and D.C. United (12-11-8, 44 points) has moved up to sixth going into a home match at Audi Field on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. against Toronto FC (9-16-6, 33).
In the previous meeting, the teams tied 4-4 in Toronto on June 13 in the highest-scoring match of the season for D.C. United.
“I think it is going to be different,” Birnbaum, 27, said after practice Monday at RFK Stadium. “It was one-sided because of the wind (in Toronto). It was a tale of two halves. It will be nice to be at home. I think we have changed a little bit with new players and have grown with new players.”
The local side plays at home Sunday against New York City FC then ends the regular-season schedule Oct. 28 at the Chicago Fire.
“No one wants to be near the middle or bottom of the league, and just playing for the fun of it,” United star Wayne Rooney said after Saturday’s 1-0 win over FC Dallas. “You want pressure moments. You want to feel that pressure. And I think it’s important, what we’re doing, we’ve got that pressure but we’re thriving on it and we’re picking up results and wins.”
D.C. United is 5-0-2 in its last seven matches and is 11-2-2 at home this year.
Birnbaum lives in Logan Circle and is engaged to a Fairfax native who competed in lacrosse in high school. They are slated to get married in Charlottesville in December.
They had to coordinate wedding plans with Chris Pontius, a former teammate with D.C. United who also played with the Irvine Strikers as a boy. Birnbaum, now with LA Galaxy, is getting married later in December in Orange County and the two men will be in each other’s wedding.
But first Birnbaum hopes to extend the season as long as possible, and Rooney has helped make that possible.
“He is a winner and a hard worker,” Birnbaum said. “He is all for the team. Obviously, he changed the culture. I think the chemistry he developed with the other attackers, it happened so quick. It is fun to watch from the back.”