On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Steve Birnbaum is a stalwart on D.C. United, where he made his Major League Soccer debut seven years ago.
When it comes to starts, headed clearances, and aerial duels, he’s the player to beat. But as tough as he is on the field, he’s a good guy off it.
Just ask him if he’d rather be an unknown superhero or a famous villain. No hesitation. “Unknown superhero,” he says.
What else do you want to know about Steven Birnbaum? Why he loves D.C.? His proudest moment in a game? What he thinks is harder — being a D.C. United defender or taking care of a six-month-old baby? If you’re a kid, call in and ask!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Steven Birnbaum Defender and Team Captain; D.C. United; @StevenBirnbaum
KOJO NNAMDIThat was Steven Birnbaum scoring one for D.C. United against the New York City FC. He's one of the veteran players on the Washington region's Major League Soccer team. He's also its captain, and is so good, that he was called up to the United States national team. We're going to learn more about Steven Birnbaum, the soccer player, today, but also about his life when he's not playing soccer, including what movies he's been watching, lately. You might be surprised. Steven Birnbaum, welcome to the program.
STEVEN BIRNBAUMHey, thanks for having me.
NNAMDISpeaking of kids, tell us about what you were like as a kid, and when you started playing soccer.
BIRNBAUMYeah, I was very energetic. I loved sports, just right from the beginning. I grew up playing basically very sport. And, yeah, I just kind of took to soccer. I started playing around, I want to say, like, seven or eight. And I really took it just because I was able to run around and get all my energy out and never had to come out of the game. So, yeah, I've kind of just -- I felt in love with it then, and, you know, it's obviously taken me this far.
NNAMDIWhat do you love about soccer? I, too, started playing when I was about eight. I never got to be half as good as you are, (laugh) but I started to play. And the fun of it was, when we first started playing, somebody just threw a ball out there, and we all just started kicking it in whatever direction we felt we should kick. But it was so free, is what I liked about it. What do you love about it?
BIRNBAUMYeah, it's very, you know, creative, but I think the biggest thing is that I was able to play both offense and defense. And just being able to, you know, kind of be with your teammates and be able to kind of have these creative ways of scoring in different ways, I guess, really appealed to me. And it was also something that I could practice by myself, all the time. I really just took the ball and kicked it against the wall for hours and hours. And that's how I got better, as a kid. And I still do that, especially during this pandemic. I'm kicking the ball against the wall as much as I can.
NNAMDIYou're a defender. You play center back, but that was not always your position. What did you play before, and why did you switch?
BIRNBAUMYeah, I was a midfielder, box-to-box midfielder my whole life, kind of growing up. But I had a growth spurt late in high school, and I'm a big bigger than most of the guys on the soccer field. And so when I went to college, about sophomore year, my coach told me, he was like, you're going to be a center back, that's a defender. And so I kind of listened to him, and he said that's going to make a good pro career choice for yourself. And that's what I did, and I kind of never looked back. And I can't imagine myself playing midfield, anymore, I'll tell you that much.
NNAMDIAs a college player, you were red-shirted. For those who don't know what that means, can you explain it? And why did it happen, and what consequences did it have for your career?
BIRNBAUMYeah, I'm going into my fourth year, which was going to be my senior year. The first game of the year, I tore my knee, and I had to red shirt, which means you have to sit out a year. And you basically lose eligibility for that year of playing. And I took another year at school, and it ended up being a great decision of mine, because I ended up being able to come back and finish school and play a fifth season with my team up in Berkley. And, you know, I just loved it and had a great season and ended up getting drafted to D.C. United.
NNAMDIWell, you're the second player I know who this happened to. You get injured, you red shirt a year, and then when you came back, you were a better player?
BIRNBAUMYeah, it's kind of a weird thing. I think once something's taken away from you, you kind of just grow fonder of it. And, for me, that was kind of the case. And I learned to watch the game differently from sitting on the sideline and doing more film and stuff like that. So, I feel like I was better mentally prepared for soccer than I would just be physically. So, I was bigger, stronger, but mentally was the biggest thing.
NNAMDIHere now a question from eight-year-old Coleman. Coleman, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLEMANHi, Mr. Steven. I'm calling from D.C., and I'm eight, and I love soccer.
BIRNBAUMHi, Coleman. Thanks for calling in.
NNAMDIColeman, do you have a question?
COLEMANYeah. What is your favorite soccer team, besides from D.C. United, and why?
BIRNBAUMGood question. My favorite soccer team is Chelsea. I grew up watching them as a kid. They're in the English Premier League, in England. And a neighbor of mine's mom was from Chelsea, and so she was a big Chelsea supporter. And I kind of just took to it and, yeah, been my team ever since.
NNAMDIColeman, thank you very much for your call. Steven, my brother now hates you. He is a devoted Arsenal fan, and hates Chelsea. (laugh) Here now is nine-year-old Jana. Jana, thank you for calling. You're on the air, Jana. Go ahead, please.
JANASteven, did the rest of your family get to see your new baby before COVID-19?
BIRNBAUM(laugh) That's funny.
NNAMDII should tell you that Steven and his wife had a baby in October of last year. But go ahead, please, Steven.
BIRNBAUMYeah, my daughter's almost seven months old now, and, yes, my family was all able to see her before all this happened. My family's in California, but they came out, you know, about a week after she was born. And, you know, everyone's really excited to see her again, once all this calms down and it's safe.
NNAMDIAnd thank you so much for your call, Jana. Steven, you were the second pick in the Major League Soccer draft in 2014. What did it feel like when D.C. United chose you?
BIRNBAUMIt was just the best experience, and it was just elation. And I was just so happy because it was a dream of mine, from a young age, to be drafted and to be a professional soccer player. And to be able to be drafted by D.C. United, an historic and, you know, an historic club with a great coach and a great ownership, and all that. It was a dream come true of mine. And I've been lucky to be here now for seven years. And, yeah, it was just -- you know, it was just great for me and my family at that time.
NNAMDIBen Olsen is, indeed, a great coach. As a D.C. United player, you were called up to the U.S. national team. What was that like?
BIRNBAUMYeah, to be able to represent your country on the soccer field was, you know, something that I didn't necessarily think would ever happen to me. But, you know, I had a good season, and, you know, Jurgen Klinsmann was the coach at the time, and he called me up. And it was an unbelievable feeling.
BIRNBAUMAnd my first game was down in Chile, and I'll never forget being able to, yeah, represent my country and singing the national anthem, you know, with my teammates, you know, over the crest of the U.S.A. jersey. And it's just an unreal feeling.
NNAMDIHere's 14-year-old Philip in Fairfax, Virginia. Philip, you're on the air. Philip, go ahead, please.
PHILIPHello. So, Steve, who's your idle on the field and off the field, and why?
BIRNBAUMOof. Well, that's a good question. My idle on the field, I was a big, big -- obviously, you know, because of growing up as a Chelsea fan, I really took to John Terry as a center back, and I learned a lot from him. And my biggest idle of the field is my mom, a single mother. She kind of -- you know, I wouldn't be where I am today without her. And, you know, I think, you know, she's just kind of my hero. But, soccer-wise, it was John Terry. And I loved watching him play. He was a hardnosed defender.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call, Philip. Tell us a little bit more about the role your mom played in your life of soccer, because without her, you couldn't really get around.
BIRNBAUMExactly. I mean, I had a single mother and, you know, I have an older sister, who's two years older. And she played a ton of sports growing up. And, you know, looking back now that I'm a father, I don't know how she did it. And, you know, on the weekends I'm not quite sure how she did it. You know, she would drive us to and from games. And during the week, after school, we'd go to practice. And, you know, we were just all involved in so many extracurricular activities. And, yeah, she's just a very strong, driven woman. And I think, you know, I'm taken a lot of her attributes into my life.
NNAMDIOur guest is Steven Birnbaum. He is captain and a defender on the D.C. United, Washington's Major League Soccer team. Steven, what was your favorite moment on the field with the national team?
BIRNBAUMYeah, it was a pretty awesome feeling. We were playing Iceland in California, in L.A., and I got subbed on at about halftime. And I came on and had an assist, and we were tied in the game. And the last minute of the game, I ended up scoring a goal to win the game, 3-2, in the 90th minute.
BIRNBAUMAnd it was only my second game, ever. I had played with the men's national team. And my entire family was there and friends. You know, I think there were 40 of them in the stands. (laugh) Yeah, I was lucky enough just to play and then, you know, to be able to score in that fashion, it was pretty unbelievable. And, you know, it's just a moment I'll cherish for the rest of my life.
NNAMDIWell, you loved growing up in California, but now you say you also love living here, in D.C. What do you like so much about it here?
BIRNBAUMYeah, I do love California. I do miss the weather there, but, you know, my wife and I moved to -- you know, we moved into D.C. -- I used to live in Virginia, but then moved into D.C. about five years ago, and love the city. I love being able to bike around. You know, it's a major city, but it's fairly small. And so I like that aspect.
BIRNBAUMAnd, you know, we kind of now live in a suburb within the city, and it's nice to be able to pop over to restaurants when, you know, we want to. But to be also -- you know, to have it be a little bit quiet. So, I think, you know, it's so great, and it's beautiful. We love being able to -- if I need to clear my head, I take my bike and ride around the monuments.
NNAMDITo prepare for a game, you warm up not only your body, but, it is my understanding, your brain. What are some of the techniques you use to get in the right mindset?
BIRNBAUMI think the biggest thing for me is just mental imagery. You know, I was taught that in college and it's to be able to visualize the good things that are going to happen in the game. And, you know, if I'm -- I was always taught that if you prepare well, you're going to play well. So, it was just preparing myself every game. And if I did the right things in practice leading up to that game that week, I was going to perform the best that I could. And so, mental imagery was the biggest thing, you know, either meaning defending or scoring a goal or, you know, celebrating with my teammates after the game. That's probably the biggest thing.
NNAMDIWell, we mentioned this earlier, so let's talk a little bit about your life outside of soccer. It's my understanding that since you're not playing, you've been changing a lot of diapers lately. (laugh)
BIRNBAUM(laugh) That is true. That is true. I just finished up on before we got on this call. (laugh) So, my wife is working fulltime from home and, you know, now that we're not training or anything right now, I'm on full dad duty. So, taking care of my seven-month-old...
NNAMDIYou got Coco.
BIRNBAUMI've got Coco. We're going on a bunch of walks, you know, trying my best to, you know, get her to crawl. And it's great thought being here with her and spending this much time and being able to see her progress, you know, each milestone, I guess.
NNAMDIWhich is harder, playing center back for D.C. United, or taking care of a six-month-old?
BIRNBAUMBy far, taking care of a six-month-old. That is, by far, a harder task. I give so much credit to stay-at-home parents. It's very hard and I don't know how everyone does it for that long. But, no, I'm very thankful to be with her.
NNAMDIHow old do you think Coco will be when you introduce her to soccer?
BIRNBAUMOof, I've gotten already introduced her to a little soccer ball.
NNAMDII was about to say...
BIRNBAUMYeah, and she likes it. She's kind of like a little defender on the ground. But, you know, I hope she likes sports, but, you know, whatever she's into I'll support. But, no, I think once she starts being able to run around, we'll probably introduce a soccer ball to her and have her kick it.
NNAMDIMy question should have been how old was Coco when you introduced her to soccer. (laugh)
BIRNBAUMYeah, probably a couple months ago.
NNAMDIHere's nine-year-old Peter. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERMy question is, have you played “FIFA,” the video game and what are your opinions on it?
BIRNBAUMGood question. You know, it's kind of weird. I've never really been a big video game player, unfortunately. And there's a lot of guys on our team who do play “FIFA” and are very good at it. I played it a couple times. I'm not very good. I think I got a little bit more frustrated than I would, normally. But, no, I think it's great. It's a great way to learn about the game. You kind of see the whole field and be able to pass the ball. And, you know, I think that's the biggest part is, you know, building goals and defending as a team is the coolest part in those games.
NNAMDIAnd thank you so much for your call. Here is 14-year-old Rachel, in Washington. Rachel, your turn.
RACHELHello, Mr. Steven. What made you choose soccer over all the other sports you played?
BIRNBAUMHey, good question. I think, for me, it was just that I was able to, you know, kind of be able to run around and not have to be subbed off the field. You know, it was one of those things where I played baseball and basketball, growing up. And, you know, in baseball you sit around a lot and you wait. Whereas, in soccer, I got to just run and I got to, you know, defend and attack and score and, you know, not let people score. So, I think that was the biggest thing, just being able to have an impact on a game that, you know, I wouldn't have had in baseball.
NNAMDIRachel, do you play soccer?
NNAMDIWhat made you choose soccer?
RACHELWell, a bunch of my friends were playing it, and I practiced with them a little bit, and it was a lot of fun.
NNAMDIWell, that's how it often happens. Go ahead, Steven.
BIRNBAUMThat's great. No, I think soccer's one of those sports where, you know, you can't do it by yourself. And so having, you know, your teammates and friends there, it's the best part of playing soccer. And the best times I've ever had is playing with your friends.
NNAMDIRachel, thank you for your call and good luck to you with your soccer career. Our guess is Steven Birnbaum. He is captain and a defender on D.C. United. Bryan in Rockville, Maryland. Bryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRYANWhen you first stepped on the field, what was your first feeling that you felt?
BIRNBAUMI think, when I first stepped on the field, was just happiness. You know, I just love playing soccer. I love being able to touch the ball. But, you know, before these games I'm also a little nervous. You know, I think always having a little bit of nerves before games is a big part of why I'm successful in, you know, how I play. But the biggest thing is just joy.
BIRNBAUMAnd, you know, being a professional soccer player, sometimes you've got to tap into, you know, what brought you to playing soccer in the first place. And, you know, it was the love of the game, when I was a kid, and just enjoying to play with my friends.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Bryan. Steven, you announced that you were going to be a dad on national television, but in a kind of unusual way. Tell our listeners about that, please. (laugh)
BIRNBAUM(laugh) Yeah. You know, I was sitting in a hotel room with Wayne Rooney. You know, he was my roommate on the road. And my wife was pregnant. We had told our close family members and close friends, but not really announced it to anyone else. And I told Wayne, I said, you know, if I score, you know, in the next couple games, I think I'm going to, you know, put the ball under my shirt and act like, you know, and give a birth announcement. Wayne's like, go ahead.
BIRNBAUMAnd so I ended up scoring against Orlando. And my wife was watching the game, and she really didn't know what was going on. But then, all of a sudden, everyone started calling her and texting her saying congratulations. And, you know, that was the way I announced it. It was on national television, so it was kind of cool.
NNAMDIJust put the ball under your shirt, and that was the announcement, right there. And it turned out that your wife was not upset either. You thought she might have been.
BIRNBAUMYeah. I thought she might've been but, you know, it was one of those things in the interview after the game where I was just, like, well, honey, I hope this okay. And, you know, I gave her a call in the locker room after, and she was just so happy. And so we have, you know, the newspaper articles with all that stuff printed out in our daughter's room so it's kind of cool.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Wayne Rooney. You've been on D.C. United for seven years, and you've seen many players come and go, including superstar Wayne Rooney, who went back to England last year. What was it like to lose him on the team, and have you been able to stay in touch with him?
BIRNBAUMYeah, it's obviously really tough. You know, he was a major focal point and, you know, one of the best soccer players in the world. So, to lose him was just -- you know, it was a tough blow for the organization. And, you know, it was just a tough blow because he was a good friend of mine. So, you know, we wish him the best and he's doing great things back in England, at Darby. And, you know, I think it's just one of those things where, you know, he had to do what was best for his family. And, no, we stay in touch and we still talk. And, no, he's going to be a good friend for a long time.
NNAMDIWhat did he bring to the team that you think has a lasting effect?
BIRNBAUMI think it was a culture and a winning mentality. You know, every day he came to practice he was wanting to compete and, you know, wanted to be the best and show that. And I think that brought the best out of all the other guys on the team. And, you know, everyone wanted to, you know, when we got into the games, play for him and win for him. And, yeah, that was what, you know, he kind of brought to our team. And everyone kind of elevated their game after that.
NNAMDIAnd we all hated to see him go. It's my understanding that you've been watching movies about strong girls lately. What have you been watching, and why?
BIRNBAUMWe have. You know, just to help my daughter, you know, see colors, and all, the animation. And also to help pass the time we watch -- you know, I think her favorite movie is “Moana.” And we've watched that so many times. That and both the “Frozen” movies, the old “Mulan” movie, we watched. But, yeah, definitely, the women empowering movies is great. And I'm trying to show her she can do whatever she wants.
NNAMDIWell, how are you staying in shape when you can't go to practices?
BIRNBAUMWell, you know, I go, and there's a local just park around the corner from my house. And, you know, our team gives us some workouts to do. And we go out there and do, you know, some runs and some body weight exercises. And then I have a stationary bike in the house. And, you know, it's just a tough time to be able to, you know, stay active and fit. But, you know, we're all doing the best we can, and, you know, it's just a small price to pay to, you know, get back to work soon.
NNAMDIYeah, my stationary bike and me have now become best friends, as a matter of fact. (laugh) You are sharing some of your workout routines and videos online. But what I notice is that you're not only trying to strengthen your legs. You're doing work on your arms, too. Why is that?
BIRNBAUMThe biggest thing, I think, is just to have a full, well-rounded body. You know, I'm not the biggest guy on the league, so to have a strong core and upper body is important. You know, it helps with balance, and it helps with shielding the ball and winning tackles. So, yeah, to have a full, well-rounded body is very important. And, obviously, the legs are a major criteria of that, but, you know, having strong core strength is probably the most important.
NNAMDIYeah, because when you're trying to win a ball, a lot of parts of your body come into play at that point. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou have had several nicknames on the teams you've played on over the years. What are they, and what does Coach Ben Olsen sometimes call you now?
BIRNBAUMYeah, Ben Olsen, he'll sometimes call me Stevo.
NNAMDIThat sounds like Wilson, yeah. (laugh)
BIRNBAUM(laugh) Yeah, that's his nickname that he gives me. And then, you know, on the teams growing up in high school, I was called Burns, plays on my last name Birnbaum. And then everyone in college and people these days still call me Birnie. So, that was -- you know, people didn't even know me by my first name in college, so that was kind of funny.
NNAMDIA lot of kids who play the soccer field, they have to be the one who scores the goals. As a defender, you don't get that opportunity to score as much as some others do, but you say you're good with that. Can you explain your thinking on that?
BIRNBAUMYeah. I think that's what's beautiful about soccer, is that, you know, it's not just the person who scores the goal. It's the whole team. And it's beautiful in a way that goals are built up. And, you know, sometimes it's, you know, even harder to make the pass to have the goal being scored. So, that's kind of what I like about it.
BIRNBAUMAnd, you know, it's a full team sport. Not one person can do it by themselves. And, you know, being a defender, you know, we say that we start the offense from the back. So, we're kind of the first people who get the ball moving forward into the midfielders, and then the forwards. And so the forwards wouldn’t be able to score without us.
NNAMDIWell, the number on your jersey is 15. Is that number significant to you in any way, or is it, well, just a number?
BIRNBAUMWell, it's funny, you know, when I started playing soccer, well, competitively, at about nine-years-old, the team just kind of gave me the number 15. And since then, I just really took to it. And, literally, since about nine till now, I've been number 15 on every team that I've ever played on. And it's my favorite number and, you know, I've been with that number now for 20 years. It's pretty crazy.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, you guys used to play at R.F.K. Stadium, and for nearly two years now, you've been at Audi Field. How is it different at Audi?
BIRNBAUMIt's a lot more intimate. It's great to have, you know, a soccer-specific stadium in the heart of D.C. It's a beautiful stadium. The fans are on top of us. You know, I think it holds about 25,000 fans and, you know, usually sells out, most games.
BIRNBAUMYeah, it's pretty great.
NNAMDISteven Birnbaum, captain and defender on D.C. United, Washington's Major League Soccer team. Thank you so much for joining us.
BIRNBAUMThanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with D.C. United Captain Steven Birnbaum was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, is it possible to date during a pandemic? Plus, quarantine cooking with the host of WAMU's Dish City podcast. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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