It’s been a rocky start to 2017 for Steve Birnbaum.
Coming into the year, it looked to be the year the big breakout was set to happen. He had been named D.C. United’s captain after signing a multi-year deal to remain with the club, despite interest from Europe. He’d made 11 appearances with the USMNT and looked to be an option at center defense for years. It was his time.
Then he was left out of the USMNT side for two World Cup qualifiers, not selected by new head coach Bruce Arena. D.C. United stumbled early in the season, dropping their first two games in March. Following a re-pairing with Bobby Boswell in defense, United found their stride, but Birnbaum’s season was again put on hold when he suffered a concussion in a loss to New York Red Bulls.
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It wasn’t the start to the year he wanted. But Birnbaum isn’t wallowing. If anything, he seems upbeat. Yes, the start didn't go according to plan, but he has a new contract with a club that believes in him. He’s moved from Arlington, Virginia into Washington D.C. proper, where he’s found a new energy and excitement in his new home in the Logan Circle neighborhood. While it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to feature for D.C. United in their big match against Atlanta United F.C. this weekend (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on FS1), he’ll be back on the field soon and ready to fight to get back into the national team picture.
In a recent conversation with FOX Sports, Birnbaum opened up on the challenges of the early going and how he is looking to get back to the top of American soccer.
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Fox Sports: What went wrong at the beginning of this season?
Steve Birnbaum: It was just execution everywhere. We weren’t executing on the defensive side. We were giving up soft goals and, offensively, I mean, we didn’t score one goal in March. That was a rough stretch for us. But now we’ve some goals scored, some good wins. We’re feeling more and more confident.
Losing those games in March, that was a reality check on us. We needed to figure stuff out. We needed more urgency on both sides of the ball. That’s really what it’s been, the last few games. We’ve come out with more energy.
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FS: Was that especially stressful after being named captain?
SB: It puts a little more burden on your shoulders, to be honest. You take pride in each game, and you take it a little more to heart when you lose. … But [last year’s captain] Bobby [Boswell] is still here, and he’s still such an important leader for this team. He’s such a professional. He’s taken me under his wing, given me some lessons. It’s going well so far.
FS: It’s obviously frustrating not to get the call up after January camp. Did you sense a different vibe with the team under Bruce?
SB: Yeah, definitely a different vibe. But it’s a good vibe. They let you do your thing off the field. They trust that you’re a professional. Once you get there, it’s straight to work and all business. And yeah, I just have to keep working hard. Hopefully I get another look soon.
FS: You’ve signed a new deal to remain with the team. I know you grew up in Cali – has this city grown on you?
SB: So much. I lived in Arlington the last two years, and I just moved into the city about six months ago, and I’m loving it. Live in Logan Circle, can’t get enough of it. I’m falling in love with this city, and I look forward to being here for awhile.
FS: Europe could still be an option though?
SB: I think D.C. is just the right fit for me. There was nothing overseas that was going to be the right fit for me [right now] I thought. Those options are still open. I signed a multi-year deal here, and I’m excited to be here, and I think that’s what it is. It’s me and finding the right fit here in D.C. Ben’s a great coach. We get along. It’s great.
FS: I know your team goals this year are about making it to playoffs and getting back to MLS Cup final. What were your personal goals? What did you sit down this year and think: This is what I need to get better at?
SB: Leadership. That’s the biggest thing. To be a captain is to be a leader on and off the field. That’s something that I’ve been working on over the last couple years, and I think Ben’s seen that, and why he asked me to be the captain. It’s the biggest thing, making the players around me better.