In the 2014 Major League Soccer SuperDraft the Philadelphia Union wanted a goalkeeper. With additions in recent weeks on offense and defense, D.C. United had options. Against that backdrop United made a deal and with the second overall pick selected University of California defender Steven Birnbaum.
United had the first pick in Thursday’s SuperDraft, but made a trade with the Union who held the second spot. The deal involved United receiving allocation money and allowed the Union to make the University of Connecticut’s Andre Blake the first goalkeeper to ever be selected with the top choice in the SuperDraft.
“We wanted Steven, but we knew there would be a lot of interest in Blake,” said United head coach Ben Olsen. “This allowed us to get the player we wanted and at the same time get a little bit of money. It also takes some of the pressure off Steven from being the number one pick.”
Birnbaum entered draft day with the Tom Fitzgerald award as the top player from the recently concluded MLS Draft Combine in Florida. While in Florida Birnbaum, who is a center back, impressed observers with his ability to distribute the ball and also use his 6’3” frame to defend and use his height on set pieces.
“I am just so excited and can’t wait to get started with United,” said Birnbaum by phone from the draft in Philadelphia.
When asked to describe his style of play Birnbaum, who favors Chelsea’s John Terry and the LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez, said he considers himself a “hard working blue collar defender” who is good in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet. In high school Birnbaum played as a holding midfielder and he says brings the mentality of that position to role at the back.
“He (Birnbaum) is well rounded,” Olsen added. “He has the right mentality and the most impressive set of intangibles of anyone I have ever met in college. That is a big part of it. We are trying to build the right culture with United and he fits the mold.”
Originally slated to only have one draft choice on Thursday, United made a deal with Montreal for a pick in the second round. United used the 29th overall selection on UCLA midfielder Victor Munoz after sending an international slot to the Impact. Munoz’s play at the MLS Draft Combine peaked United’s interest,
“He (Munoz) is very technical and has a great left foot,” Olsen said. “He combines well and crosses a good ball. He also has some pedigree having played in the Real Madrid youth system.”
The Black and Red put itself in a position to deal at the SuperDraft by starting its roster overhaul soon after the end of the 2013 season. In December veterans Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola were added to bolster the attack. Johnson bagged 23 goals the past two seasons with Seattle, while Espindola had 9 goals in 28 appearances in New York last season.
On defense Bobby Boswell, Canadian international Nana Attakora, and right back Sean Franklin were signed. Then this week United traded Ethan White to Philadelphia for veteran center back Jeff Parke, while completing a transfer of central defender Dejan Jakovic to Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse.
With a strengthened side just since November, it made it difficult to predict United’s course of action at the SuperDraft. If United had decided to go for an attacking player two-time Herrmann Award winner Patrick Mullins would have been a popular choice. Mullins starred at the University of Maryland for four seasons and possesses a lethal left foot. Mullins was selected 11th overall by New England.
Like Mullins, Birnbaum played all four years in college and working from his defensive position scored 10 goals in 19 games his senior year to lead the Golden Bears in scoring. With Birnbaum and Christian Dean, who was selected third overall in the SuperDraft by Vancouver, anchoring the backline California made it to NCAA quarterfinals in 2013 before losing in overtime to Maryland.
Consider when United closed its 2013 season it had a back four of Chris Korb, James Riley, Daniel Woolard, and Dennis Iapichino. Only Korb remains on the roster. United made the playoffs only two seasons ago, but the dramatic change makes sense after a three-win campaign in 2013 and with the competition level of MLS on the rise.