In the U.S. Men’s National Team’s friendly against Chile, there were some familiar faces: Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and DeAndre Yedlin, all of whom played on the U.S. 2014 FIFA World Cup team. But, for Cal men’s soccer fans, there was an even more familiar face: defender Steve Birnbaum.
And with a host of other former Cal soccer players getting drafted high in the MLS SuperDraft, the Bears’ program is making a name for itself outside Edwards Stadium.
Birnbaum, who graduated from Cal in 2014, was recently named to the USMNT 23-man roster for two friendlies, against Chile and Panama. On Wednesday, Birnbaum got his first national team cap, the first Bear to do so since Pete Woodring earned three in 1993. Birnbaum played all 90 minutes of the match at right back, but the Chilean national team was too much, and the U.S. squad fell 3-2.
Cal men’s soccer head coach Kevin Grimes said he caught about the last 15 minutes of the match and thoroughly enjoyed seeing Birnbaum on the field looking as strong as he did. Grimes said the moment brought him back to when he got his first national team cap, a moment that still sends shivers up his back when he thinks about it.
“This was a great day for Cal,” Grimes said. “It’s really special for our program to witness today and everybody to be excited about. … He’s one of the all-time great players to play at Cal.”
Birnbaum has what Grimes called “intangibles” that coaches love that go along with the other skills he has, such as the fact that Birnbaum is an excellent defender and is “tremendous” in the air.
“Shoot, you want a guy like that playing for you on the field,” Grimes said. “You want guys fighting for you, competing for you and your jersey. … And with Steve, he is talented and he is gifted and he is a special player. Coaches gravitate toward that, you want someone like that on your side, want someone who gives you that edginess.”
Birnbaum’s presence on the national squad is just one of a number of recent successes for the former Bear, who was the star of a Cal men’s soccer team that spent a good chunk of time at No. 1 and made it to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2013 before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Maryland. He was also taken second in the 2014 MLS Superdraft by D.C. United — the highest draft pick Cal has had — and put together a regular season that had him a finalist for Rookie of the Year honors.
But Birnbaum isn’t the only successful Cal player coming out of the Bears’ program under the tutelage of Grimes. Cal lost another defender in the 2014 SuperDraft, Christian Dean, who left school early and was taken third by the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Dean had been in camp with Birnbaum and 26 other national team hopefuls before being cut before the friendlies. But, with his skill, Dean will likely be an important figure in helping the U.S. U-23 Olympic team qualify for Brazil.
Grimes said he was proud to see Dean be called into the national camp and that even if he didn’t make the 23-man roster this time around, Grimes has no doubt Dean has very big things ahead of him.
Most recently, three players from the 2014 Cal men’s soccer team were selected in the 2015 SuperDraft. Connor Hallisey was drafted 10th by Sporting Kansas City, Stefano Bonomo 39th by the New York Red Bulls and Seth Casiple 84th by the Portland Timbers, a pick Grimes said he was surprised to see so late.
With such a strong Cal presence in the pros, Grimes said it’s great for the program to see the work spent helping these players develop paying off.
“We want to continue to manifest our team’s culture and push the limits and push ourselves to be the best,” Grimes said. “These are historic moments for Cal soccer.”