For Steve Birnbaum, being a professional athlete was always the dream. Getting there, however, would prove to be somewhat of a nightmare.
Birnbaum’s target is to break into the MLS, but ultimately, the young star has hopes of making it to the premier leagues of Europe.
“I want to start out playing in the MLS for a couple of years and then hopefully make it to Europe — it would be ideal to play for Chelsea, but anywhere in Europe, really,” Birnbaum says. “It would be an honor to play there.”
Once soccer became the goal, Birnbaum endeavored to convert his dream into a reality. Excelling at high school and competing with the U.S. Youth National Teams, Birnbaum was demonstrating his skills and making the marks necessary to keep his professional goal in sight.
After arriving at Cal, Birnbaum honed his skills as a soccer player and took a step toward his final objective. The coaches at Cal and the strong work ethic of the team provided a prolike environment for him, with extensively mapped-out and organized training sessions and the guidance of former Pac-12 Coach of the Year Kevin Grimes.
Because of Grimes, Birnbaum made one of the most important decisions of his soccer life — the switch from midfielder to defender. Birnbaum had played in high school at midfield, but Grimes, a defender himself, saw the potential in Birnbaum as a back and scouted the player as such. Grimes’ experience and personal knowledge of the position enabled him to make an informed decision and fully develop Birnbaum’s defensive skills, something Birnbaum is truly grateful for.
“I learned a lot from Kevin, who is a defensive specialist,” Birnbaum says. “He saw me as a center back. He had that vision for me, and it worked out nicely.”
With his new position and his new team, Birnbaum continued to stand out and make substantial inroads toward his objective of making it to the MLS. He started the highest number of games of any true freshman in 2009 and in 2012 competed for the U.S team at the Maccabi games in Brazil, returning home with a silver medal for his efforts.
The stage was set for Birnbaum to finish his career at Cal and move on to the dizzying heights of the professional world. But then, at the start of his final season, the potential professional faced a setback that threatened to leave his plans in tatters.
Birnbaum had strained his LCL, the lateral collateral ligament in his knee — the ligament that connects the shin and thigh bone. It was an injury that could — and did — keep Birnbaum out for an entire season: his senior season. Birnbaum chose to take a medical redshirt season, putting his dreams on hold.
Giving up was never an option for Birnbaum. With support from the coaching staff, trainers, his team and his family, he made the decision to continue to fight on. Birnbaum would return to Cal and men’s soccer for a fifth year.
“I had support from all angles, and it really helped me to make the decision to come back,” Birnbaum says.
This time away from action, however, was a positive one for Birnbaum and his future, as he learned both to appreciate the game and improve as a player. Hours spent with the coaches reviewing his play meant Birnbaum gained a different perspective on soccer. He was observing from the sidelines and viewing the game from a spectator’s standpoint, a position that enabled him to critique his game from an alternative angle.
“Sitting out, you grow up as a player and a person,” he says. “It was a learning experience for me, and I think it has translated into this year.”
Back to form and better than ever before, Birnbaum continues to shine with the Cal setup.
“My job right now is playing soccer for Cal … I’m at the coaches’ office a lot watching film, going over film with them and talking about strategies for games,” he said.
In the final five minutes of the hotly contested game against Stanford, it was Birnbaum who confirmed the victory for an unbeaten Cal team. The scoreboard was bare, and the shrill noise from the referee’s whistle signified the chance: a penalty. Birnbaum stepped up to the mark and fired; the shot ricocheted off the goalkeepers’ outstretched hands but was quickly swept up by a waiting Birnbaum, who buried the ball in the netting once and for all. Once again, he had delivered for his team.
Despite being a defender, it is Birnbaum who holds the current record of highest goals and points scored in the Pac-12 this season — but he is modest about his obvious success.
“It’s kind of funny; a lot of the guys make fun of me for the way I score goals,” he says. “I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. I’ve obviously been lucky.”
Birnbaum is playing in his final season for the Bears, and despite his fond memories, he is looking forward to the future and what it may bring.
“I’ve had a great time here at Cal, but I’ve been here for a while — almost five full years — and I’m ready to move on,” Birnbaum says. “It’s going to be sad leaving all the guys, but I’m ready.”
His teammates will be sad to see him leave as well but are positive about his future.
“Oh yeah, definitely, he’ll make it,” says teammate Christian Dean. “He’s a great player.”
Daniella Mogilner covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].