Defender Steve Birnbaum is not* for sale, D.C. United says.
(*Everyone has a price, but Maccabi Tel Aviv’s reported offer of $850,000 falls well short for a rising national team center back.)
Birnbaum’s agent isn’t doing his client any favors by telling media outlets that the California native wants to go and that his oppressive employer won’t set him free from tyranny (despite the low-ball offers). Such public tactics suggest, unfairly, that Birnbaum’s mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t care about his current club, which is bracing for a playoff fight the next three months.
Here are the facts: Birnbaum is a quality MLS defender who, after enjoying a sterling rookie season, dropped off last year. He showed enough promise, though, to catch Jurgen Klinsmann’s eye and earn an invitation to the U.S. winter workouts.
A strong showing in camp, plus a late match-winning goal against Iceland, earned him a place in the squad for World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala and a starting role in the second match in Columbus. This summer, he made the Copa America list and appeared as a substitute twice.
His MLS contract runs through the 2017 season. He is earning just $86,350 in base salary and $116,350 in guaranteed compensation this year. (He collected $66,000 base and $96,000 guaranteed in each of his first two seasons.)
Last year, the sides engaged in talks about an upgraded and extended pact but did not reach a deal. Specifics of the offer were not disclosed.
If United lets him play out his contract, Birnbaum could begin negotiating with a club abroad during the 2017 MLS season and leave afterward without a transfer fee attached. United would retain his MLS rights. By selling him, United would forfeit his domestic rights.
At age 25, the four-year UC Berkeley Bear is not, by international standards, a young prospect, even though he has been a pro for only 2 ½ seasons. If he is going to move abroad, it needs to happen in, say, the next 18 months.
So what is he worth on the transfer market?
The Portland Timbers sold 26-year-old left back Jorge Villafaña (no caps) last fall to a Mexican club, Santos Laguna, for almost $1 million. Center back Matt Miazga (no caps until last November and no Copa call-up), age 20, moved from the New York Red Bulls to Premier League titan Chelsea for $5 million last winter. Realistically, United wouldn’t begin listening to offers until the word “million” entered the conversation.
Is Israel the best place for him? He would qualify as a domestic player because of his Jewish heritage. The Israeli league is not close to top tier in European circles, but Maccabi Tel Aviv is competing in the UEFA Europa League. So is another Birnbaum suitor, Maccabi Haifa. American forward Aaron Schoenfeld, who didn’t pan out with the Columbus Crew, scored eight goals in 12 league appearances for Hapoel Tel Aviv last season.
If Birnbaum’s stock continues to rise on the national team (he’ll likely return to the squad for four World Cup qualifiers and two friendlies this fall), he would probably begin drawing interest from clubs in leagues of higher stature overseas — and attract a larger transfer fee.
Birnbaum’s international value is only part of the equation; United needs him. Bobby Boswell is 33 years old and, after starting all but one league match for which he was available over 2 ½ years, he was on the bench Saturday at Philadelphia. Kofi Opare was pretty good during Birnbaum’s extended U.S. leave but had a clunker against the Union, conceding a penalty in the first half and getting sent off in the second. Jalen Robinson is promising but inexperienced.
Birnbaum was back in the lineup against Philly, his first United appearance since May 20 against the same opponent in the same stadium. He logged 90 minutes in a 3-0 defeat that was settled by the 47th minute.
Asked about transfer distractions, United Coach Ben Olsen said afterward: “There’s a lot of noise around him, but he showed tonight that he can block it out.”