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.”
One week after paying a record-breaking transfer fee to acquire Edison Flores, DC United added another midfielder to the roster in the form of Julian Gressel.
DC United acquired Gressel from Atlanta United via transfer Tuesday for $650,000 in 2020 Target Allocation Money (TAM) and $100,000 in TAM for 2021. Additional compensation could be owed to Atlanta based on performance incentives.
Gressel was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft and has led the league in assists since debuting with Atlanta in 2017. Over his first 98 career appearances, he's recorded 32 assists to go along with 15 career goals.
"[Gressel] has impressed throughout his time in MLS and has been a major component to Atlanta’s success in the league since 2017," DC GM and VP of Soccer Operations Dave Kasper said in a statement. "Last year, he led Atlanta in assists and chances created while also scoring eight goals so we’re looking forward to adding his impressive goal creating ability and eye for goal to our roster in 2020 and beyond."
Gressel was the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year after scoring five goals and recorded nine assists in his first 32 appearances as a pro.
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More DC United news
As D.C. United looks to replace the production of its three leading goalscorers from last season, including England legend Wayne Rooney, the club announced the signing of Peruvian midfielder Edison Flores Tuesday. To acquire Flores, the Black-and-Red paid Morelia, his former club in Mexico, a $5 million transfer fee — a new club record for D.C. United — according to Steven Goff of the Washington Post.
The 25-year-old appeared in three matches for Peru’s national team in the 2018 World Cup, which Flores helped his country qualify for with five goals in 14 appearances during World Cup qualification. Flores also netted two goals for Peru’s national team in the 2019 Copa America.
Flores' contract with D.C. United is for five years for a team-high $2.1 million, according to Goff. The Peruvian will occupy one of the team’s three designated player spots.
The Black-and-Red have one remaining designated player spot, which they could use for another high-profile acquisition before the season begins on Feb. 29, or during the summer transfer window.
D.C. United will enter the 2020 season without the services of three of its most prolific attacking options from last year. Rooney, who scored 11 goals in 2019, returned to his native England for a role as a player-coach with Derby County. Midfielders Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez, who both scored six goals last season, also left the club.
There's hope that Flores can help offset the effects of that lost production.
“We are excited to add an international player of Edison's pedigree to the team ahead of the 2020 season," Dave Kasper, D.C. United General Manager and VP of Soccer Operations, said in a release. "He is an exciting and dynamic attacking player who creates and scores goals. What has really impressed us is his commitment to the team...he is a versatile and gritty two-way player who plays with a real pulse.