D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum’s rapid ascension to U.S. Men’s National Team starter isn’t quite complete, but if the 25-year-old does grab a starting job at this summer’s Copa America Centenario tournament — United Head Coach Ben Olsen won’t be taken aback.
“Some guys I’m surprised at, but I’m not one bit surprised that he’s on this stage,” Olsen said Thursday, less than 24 hours after Birnbaum played all 90 minutes in a 1-0 United States win over Ecuador. “Watching him through college and understanding the character he has as a person, the way he enjoys defending, some of his physical qualities - it doesn’t surprise us.”
Whatever those around RFK say now, Birnbaum’s rise has come quicker than most pundits thought likely when he was drafted out of California two years ago. But since impressing in U.S. Soccer’s January camp last year, Birnbaum has factored regularly into U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans — and now seems to have a leg up for one of two starting positions in the center of the American defense.
“As a center back, a shutout is a big deal,” Olsen added. “He has put himself in a good light for Jurgen for the rest of the tournament. Hopefully he gets into real games, games that matter.
Those 'real games’, start June 3rd with the United States’ Copa America Centenario opener against Colombia in Santa Clara, California. Three other central defenders on the U.S. roster - Matt Besler, John Anthony Brooks and Geoff Cameron - all have World Cup experience, so Birnbaum’s position is hardly a lock.
“He’s got room to grow — he’s got a long way to go before he’s a true starting center-back on an international stage,” Olsen acknowledged of his young defender. “But this is a great opportunity to show that he has that ability.”