[MLS ROOKIE CLASS: Ten to Watch]One of the big stories of the 2013 college season was California. Unranked in preseason, the Golden Bears were No. 1 within weeks after opening with wins over 2012 College Cup teams Georgetown and Maryland.
Wins over UCLA and Washington -- also top six seeds in the NCAA Tournament -- plus Penn State, the Big Ten regular-season champion, followed en route to a 12-0-2 start.
MLS Rookie Class: Ten to Watch
1. Jordan Allen (Univ. of Virginia-signed with Real Salt Lake)
Read his story. Follow @jayalllen.
2. Steve Birnbaum (Univ. of California)
A big reason for Cal's success was the play of its defenders, Steve Birnbaum and Christian Dean, both of whose names are being bandied about as possible No. 1 picks in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
Both have unusual stories, Birnbaum's being that he returned to Berkeley as a fifth-year senior after having to sit out in 2012.
The strain to his lateral collateral ligament in his knee suffered at the start of his senior season made ruined his 2012 season. He could have looked to enter the MLS SuperDraft, or moved on with his life with the opportunities afforded those with a UC education, but Birnbaum took a medical redshirt and returned in 2013.
Birnbaum, who grew up in Southern California and played for the Irvine Strikers and Pateadores, helped Cal earn a No. 4 seed, the highest in the 107-year history of the program, and became just the seventh Golden Bear to earn first-team All-American honors. The 6-foot-2 Birnbaum started out his career at Cal as a midfielder. But it was from as a central defender that Birnbaum, who credits Cal coach Kevin Grimes (a former defender with five caps to his name) with teaching him the position, led the Bears in scoring in 2013 with 10 goals in 19 appearances.
D.C. United holds the No. 1 pick in the SuperDraft. The obvious choice would be to take the hometown star, Maryland senior Patrick Mullins, a forward, but if United keeps the pick, it will likely go with a defender, the position at which it needs the most help. Birnbaum is considered by many the best sure bet in the draft, better than Dean, his Cal teammate who is something of a late bloomer or at least late getting on everyone's radar.
But Birnbaum is largely an unknown on the national and international stage. He was a part of the national youth team program in 2008, with the U.S. U-20s at the Copa Chivas tournament in Mexico and U-18s at the Lisbon International Tournament, and got a look-see with the U-20s in 2010, but his most recent international appearance was on the silver-medal team at 2012 Pan Am Maccabi Games in Brazil.
The next week, at the adidas MLS Combine in Florida, should be Birnbaum's coming out party.