PSP talks to Union draft pick Eric Bird

Philadelphia Union selected Virginia midfielder Eric Bird 41st overall in the 2015 SuperDraft. Bird won a national championship in his senior season at Virginia and played many roles stabilizing the center of the park for the Cavaliers. PSP spoke to him about where he thinks he fits in a MLS midfield and what he will do to show Union coaches he deserves to be on the opening day roster. 

First of all, congrats on the national championship. 

Yeah, that was amazing.

0-0 in the final, right? 

Yeah, 0-0 then we went into penalty kicks.

Were there any close calls during regular time? 

I’ll be honest, UVA dropped off for a majority of the game so UCLA controlled the ball but in terms of chances on goal, shots on target, it was dead even.

Was that the plan? Sit back and look for counters? 

Yeah, UVA, we were missing three of our top attacking options due to injury and form, so we decided it would be best for us to let UCLA dictate the pace. And we’re comfortable defending, we’ve been defending like that in some games early in the year, so it was a comfortable system for us.

Tell me about your role in the Virginia midfield. 

I think it’s a really unique role because it wasn’t just one [role]. It really depended on the game that we were in. [Virginia head coach] George [Gelnovatch] is unbelievably gifted in defensive tactics, so in some games he’d have me sitting deeper in the midfield like a holding mid, D-mid. At other games he’d have me at the point, attacking mid, and in other games, he’d have me doing a little bit of both.

I think I initially started as a D-mid in my career at UVA, and I kind of matured into an attacking mid, and developed some of my attacking side, and my final year I was actually like a No. 8, so I would go box-to-box and do a little bit of both in the game.

When you were playing that defensive mid role, as you developed the attacking skills, were you using a longer passing range or just keeping it simple?

In my D-mid role? I was kind of like a deep-lying playmaker. So I did like hitting longer balls to open up the defense. I think sometimes I’d even rush it too much and try to play too direct. Being at the college level helped me simplify my game and be more efficient with my passing in that role.

Where do you see your position at this point? Especially with the pace of MLS, a lot of the adjustment is going to be positioning, where to be so you don’t get beat in those instances where the veteran lulls you to sleep. 

I think my role could either be an 8 or a D-mid, depending on what coach Curtin thinks. I don’t see myself as a real attacking number 10 at the next level. I’ve a very good ball-winner and I can make the simple pass and get out of pressure, turn away from pressure. So those two positions, either D-mid or box-to-box would suit me better [than attacking mid].

Have you talked to anyone who has made the transition to MLS about what surprised them the most about going to the next level? 

I’ve talked to a number of different guys. My coaches at UVA, both Terry Boss and Matt Chulis, played in MLS. They obviously got their start a while back. I’ve also talked to guys like Hunter Jumper and Will Bates, who are the more recent UVA alums to go to the next level. They’ve all told me pretty much the same thing: It’s a different level than college. Things happen quicker. You have to be very efficient with your play and you have to be tidy.

They just said to go after it and do your best, and things will work out if you work hard and keep your head down and stay humble.

Do you remember the last major transition you had? High school to college, maybe, and how you dealt with it? 

The last major transition would have been… Well, I did train with Kansas City this summer and I got in with them and played a few sessions. That was a pretty eye-opening experience in terms of what guys are like at the next level.

And from high school to college, it was kind of the same position I’m in now where I’m low on the totem pole, nothing’s going to be given to me, so now I have to come in with the mindset that I want to play well and want to contribute to the team. I think I responded well back then, and I think I’ll do the same here and everything will work out, hopefully.

Kansas City doesn’t play the same style as the Union, but with a similar shape, with three midfielders and the attacking midfielder in Feilhaber checking back and demanding the ball. Did you feel comfortable making your own decisions in a situation like that? 

I think you have to. Being a soccer player, you have to come in being confident and knowing what you have to do that maximizes your strengths. My thing is getting the ball, making the simple pass, and getting stuck in and having a good presence on defense. Once you do those things, you settle down into the game and you can start trying other things.

Do you tend to be a fairly emotional guy on the field or do you go as robotic as you can?

I don’t think I’m overly emotional on the field. I don’t read into a lot of situations like missed chances or anything. I’m always pretty confident that my team will be able to create enough opportunities to score and I never try to get too high or too low.

Have you ever had guys explicitly try to get under your skin? 

Yeah, it happens all the time. Guys say stuff on the field, most of the time it’s just a little smack talk. Anything they can do, really, to get you off your game.

When you’re a guy that makes an offense tick, that’s what you get, I guess. So did you get a chance to watch many Union games after coach Curtin took over last year to see what style of game the team plays?

I actually haven’t, to be honest. I know that they play a triangle in the midfield. I’ve played against a few of the guys, like Andrew Wenger. He probably doesn’t even remember but when he was at Duke and I was a freshman at UVA, he was a great player for them. So I’m going in there with an open mind and just really looking forward to learning the system and what coach Curtin has in store.

Have you heard anything yet from the coaches about what the expectations are? 

I haven’t really talked to coach Curtin in too much detail about expectations. I think that the biggest priority is for me to go in there and show them that I’m worthy of a roster spot. That’s my biggest focus is to just make the team and then we’ll go from there.

You had a MCL/ACL tear in 2012?

My freshman year, 2011.

Can you tell me about that? That has to be one of the toughest obstacles for an athlete to overcome. Do you feel like you have played differently since then or is it totally in your past? Do you think about it now? 

I don’t think about it in terms of, “Ow, this is really nagging me.” I think about it in reflecting on how far I’ve come. I have a sense of pride about it because of what I’ve been able to overcome. It was a tough injury. It was right when I was establishing myself in the midfield of UVA. I was coming off eight starts as a freshman, so it was really difficult for me.

It was kind of a good thing in terms of how I approach the game. Because now that something like that has happened to me, I understand that this game isn’t guaranteed to anybody. Anything can happen in a split second, so you have to come to practice every day with the mindset that this could be your last and you want to give it everything you have.

Do you remember giving yourself an assessment? Where am I at right now? How much do I want this? kind of thing. 

During recovery? [Laugh] Yeah! I think that’s just natural. The first month of it was just sitting down and just getting your whole range of motion back. I was literally waking up, going into the training room, and just sitting there through pure pain, it’s just… as much as you can stand it. And then I’d go to class and go home and do the whole thing the next day.

And that was just… it would definitely go through my head: I don’t know if I want this. But with all of that, there were also people next to me pushing me constantly. Telling me if anybody can do this, I can, and that they believed in me. So that really pushed me to just silence or ignore the voice in the back of my head and keep pushing on. And it turned out to be the right decision because I think I’ve played my best soccer after the injury in my junior and senior seasons these past two years.

That must make classes seem a lot better, going to them directly after a session of pure pain. 

Well, getting to classes was tough on crutches. UVA has all these hills… still better than the pain.

PSP: Have you been to Philly before? Have you spent time here? 

EB: Actually when the College Cup was at PPL Park, I was able to play in a semifinal there against Maryland. Not the best memory in terms of the result.

But I felt it was an amazing city, and the park is right there on the Delaware River. I don’t know too much about Philly, just stuff like Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell… but I’m looking forward to exploring and getting to know more about the city.

PSP: Finally, I need to ask you about Darius Madison. What can you tell me about playing with him?

EB: He’s a really good guy. He’s extremely athletic, he’s got a really solid first touch. He was a big part of UVA’s success, especially in my junior year. He’s very good at retrieving the ball in the channels and holding the ball up and bringing others into the play. Just a very good player.


  1. Davis Russell says:

    Looks like he fits into the Amobi Okugo archetype. Hoping he sticks.

  2. Please don’t keep your head down

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