Birnbaum’s 35-yard tally against Bradley in the second round of the NCAA tournament put the Bears ahead 2-0 late in the first half and they held on for a 3-1 victory, advancing to college soccer’s version of the Sweet 16. Cal hosts Coastal Carolina on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in a third-round match.
“We’re glad to have him back,” Cal midfielder Alec Sundly said. “His assets really do make a difference for this team.”
The fifth-year senior missed the last two games of the regular season with an ankle injury and without him, the fourth-seeded Bears (13-4-2) lost overtime games to then-No. 3 Washington and Stanford.
Birnbaum, a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference selection, also sat out the entire 2012 season with a strained LCL and his return this year helped the Bears earn their first No. 1 ranking in September. He currently leads the team in points (21), goals (10), shots on goal (17) and game-winning goals (three), despite being a defender.
“He’s just really good on both sides of the ball,” Cal coach Kevin Grimes said.
Grimes moved Birnbaum from midfield to the back midway through his freshman year and the move has paid off.
“I just thought he had the skill set to make him an outstanding center-back,” Grimes said. “Obviously, his aerial game is extremely good, his range of passing is excellent and he’s a very strong tackler.”
Birnbaum is also an accurate shooter, which is why he takes most of the team’s corner and free kicks, accounting for half his goals this season.
After earning a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011, Birnbaum injured his knee just 15 minutes into the 2012 season. As a redshirt, Birnbaum spent a lot of time hanging out in the coach’s office, absorbing and digesting the game from outside the lines.
“He almost became an extension of our staff,” Grimes said.
Birnbaum said the experience improved his game.
“You just learn a lot,” Birnbaum said. “I think it’s definitely correlated to how I’m playing this year.”
Before the 2013 season kicked off, Birnbaum challenged himself to become a more vocal leader, adding yet another dimension to his game.
“I try to keep the guys on check with their school work and everything,” he said. “Just being on top of it.”
Birnbaum scored a goal in the 48th minute of his first game back as the unranked Bears upset then-No. 3 Georgetown in their season opener. The Bears went on to spend six weeks at No. 1 before dropping three of their last four games, two without Birnbaum.
But with a healthy team, the Bears are determined to make a run at the national title.
“It’s really been a fairy-tale season,” Birnbaum said.