It’s the 93rd minute.
Steven Birnbaum stands at the other end of the field. The ball isn’t near him. Neither is the play.
But it’s about to be.
Birnbaum runs 80 or so yards to the opposing penalty box for an ensuing corner kick. Teammate Anthony Salciccia plays a perfect bender and all you can see is Birnbaum’s head rising above the rest of the stationary bodies. He redirects the ball into forward John Fitzpatrick’s direction – who buries the ball in the net for the game-winning goal against San Francisco in overtime on Sept. 19, 2010.
At 6-foot-2, Birnbaum is one of the tallest players on the Cal men’s soccer team, giving him an extra advantage.
“He’s out there and he’s very noticeable on the field with his size and presence,” coach Kevin Grimes says. “He makes big plays consistently on both sides of the field.”
It was his aerial presence again that gave him his first goal as a Bear, when he scored a header in the 2-1 overtime win against Oregon State during his sophomore campaign in 2010.
Because even though it may be the attacking stints that grab the headlines, Birnbaum knows that it takes all the other moments that add up to each minute in the match to produce a moment of brilliance – when that goal arrives.
And when that goal finally arrives, Birnbaum knows to appreciate it.
The junior is a general in the central defense. He thrives on swiping the ball from underneath the feet of the forwards stepping in his territory. It’s that behind-the-scenes dirty work that often goes unrecognized.
And while he is comfortable with that position, he’s also comfortable with being in the limelight as a captain often is.
Being a captain as a junior is a unique thing, but Birny, as his friends call him, was chosen by those same friends, who he calls teammates, to undertake that role.
“Birny cares for each one of us and he lets everyone know that,” junior co-captain Anthony Salciccia says. “The younger guys look up to us.”
Birnbaum got the captain role because of who he is in the moment, not who he was or who he might be.
He’s always able to look that one step ahead to seize opportunities.
When he had the option of attending Cal a semester early, he chose to not walk at his high school graduation ceremony and instead come to Berkeley, one step closer to reaching that moment at Cal.
It’s a decision that Birnbaum doesn’t regret. He was able to further hone those skills and interact with the other players.
Birnbaum has absorbed the culture and philosophy Grimes has created at Cal and truly exemplifies the team values.
One day at a time.
One game at a time.
He may be one step ahead, but the Irvine, Calif., native has learned to live in the moment and stay focused on the task at hand.
That’s how Birnbaum handles his life on and off the soccer field now.
He attributes a lot of his growth to former player and captain A.J. Soares.
The reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year is now starting every match for the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer, but Soares and Birnbaum were an impenetrable duo in the back for Cal. Last season’s campaign saw the squad advance the farthest it has in history to the final sixteen in the NCAA College Cup and also claim the Pac-10 title.
The team also had fun during its successful 2010 campaign.
“Whenever one of us made a mistake, we would just joke about it on the field which helped us out,” Soares says.”
Birnbaum started every match for the Bears and was named All Pac-10 Honorable Mention as a sophomore.
Soares helped Birnbaum transition into the center defender role after having played center midfielder throughout his entire youth playing career.
“We had a great camaraderie,” Soares says. “And that’s the basis for why we were good together.”
Grimes knew Birnbaum’s characteristics were fitting of that position and Birnbaum can’t complain.
“I love it now,” Birnbaum says. “I’m full-on center back now and nothing else. That’s who I am.
“Everything I have learned has come from (A.J.) and Kevin (Grimes), as well as our other coaches.”
Even though Soares is gone, the Bears still have a close-knit team.
This season, the team is making the transition to find the right partner for Birnbaum. With the majority of the squad underclassmen, Birnbaum’s role as a captain is even more crucial.
“He’s naturally leading through his level of play,” Grimes says. “He’s constantly aware of the players’ needs on and off the field which makes him an ideal captain.”
Birnbaum’s personal goals for this season are the same as the team’s. The vibe is confident as the Bears look to retain the conference tile and make it to the final four this year.
However, Birnbaum knows that in order to reach that point once again, it’s about concentrating on each individual game.
“We are a team of leaders, everyone really steps up and does their job on the field,” Birnbaum says. “I’m just there to organize it.”
As for his future, the social welfare major talks about his hopes of eventually playing in the MLS. But that is at least a year away.
“I’m trying to pursue soccer so I haven’t really decided what my back-up plan would be if that doesn’t work out,” Birnbaum says. “Right now I’m just trying to stay focused on our season and will keep taking it one day at a time.
He’s looking forward, but just taking each moment as they come.
He stays grounded in the moment that is his time at Cal. Likely it will be a full four years. The junior will only come back his senior year with more knowledge and experience under his belt.
He’ll finally get a chance to walk at graduation.
And he’ll get a chance to have his mom — a single mother who raised him and his older sister — see all his hard work come to fruition.
“I want my mom to be happy,” he says, “so hopefully I walk here and she can see me.”
“That’s the goal.”
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