By FRANCO PANIZO
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Steve Birnbaum cannot wait for Day 2 of the MLS Combine for a couple of reasons.
First, he felt he was still in the process of shaking off the customary cobwebs that come from the offseason and holidays weeks. Second, his initial outing was cut shorter than he envisioned.
Birnbaum, a senior centerback from the University of California, had to be removed from his first game at the 2014 MLS Combine on Friday because of a busted lip that refused to heal. Birnbaum gashed his lip near the half-hour mark after colliding heads with 6-foot-3 forward Mark Sherrod. The injury forced the 22-year-old defender to come off the field and serve as a spectator the rest of the way.
It was an unfortunate ending to a first outing that Birnbaum wished would have been better.
“It was all right. I would’ve liked to get in my rhythm a little more, obviously,” said Birnbaum after his Nitro Charge (Red) team suffered a 4-1 loss to Predator (Green) while holding a bloodied napkin that he had been using on his lips. “But it was good being out there, get the feet wet a little bit. But like I said I would’ve liked to get my rhythm a little more. Just getting used to all the players in the back line is tough to get into it, but I’m happy and hopefully I’ll be back for the second game. I will be.”
Birnbaum is projected to be taken high in next week’s MLS SuperDraft and many scouts and coaches consider him one of the most MLS-ready players in this draft class. That was on display in brief spurts for the 6-foot-2 Birnbaum, who acknowledged that he was a little nervous playing in front of his potential future employers.
“The first couple of minutes you’re a little nerve-wracked, but we did well in the first 10 minutes,” said Birnbaum. “I thought we dominated the game in the first 10 minutes, but they got a goal on the counter and it was uphill after that. It’s a little frustrating coming out too early and they weren’t able to put me back in.”
Making it more frustrating for Birnbaum was that he had the rare luxury of playing in defense with two of his Golden Bears teammates. At left back was Christian Dean, Birnbaum’s centerback partner at Cal, and at right back was Ryan Neil.
That kind of familiarity is unusual at MLS combines, and Birnbaum was robbed of a chance to take advantage of it because of the busted lip.
“I was lucky enough to have Ryan Neal on my right,” said Birnbaum. “We worked well together a couple of times, but I’m just trying to talk as much as I can and just organize with the other centerback. It’s really all I can do.”
Plenty of eyes will be honing in on Birnbaum on Sunday given the brevity of his performance on Day 1, and he is eager for that opportunity. Not only because he will surely play more minutes, but because it also will give him a chance to fix aspects of his game that he felt he could have been better with.
“Just be a little sharper, a little crisper in my passing, just move the ball a little quicker,” said Birnbaum. “Today is the first day, it was a little sluggish, but it comes with the rhythm of the game so hopefully I can get into it more so in the second game.”