91014_isi_kitchenperry_mlsjla072014085 Jose L. Argueta/isiphotos.com
Player Spotlight

Perry Kitchen, 22, Has U.S. National Team in His Sights

At an age when many American soccer players are still in college, D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen is an established MLS veteran and enjoying the best season of his career.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
September 10, 2014
3:23 PM
FOR A 22-YEAR-OLD, two things jump out almost immediately about Perry Kitchen.

The first is the wedding band on the D.C. United midfielder’s left ring finger. The other is that he’s already played 119 games in Major League Soccer, all but one of them as a starter.

Those that know him say this isn’t a coincidence. At an age when many men, especially professional athletes, are commitment-phobic and enjoy the nightlife, Kitchen is a homebody who last December, while still 21, married Alexa, his high school sweetheart.

And at an age when many soccer players are still scratching and clawing to establish regular playing time—he’s younger than Rookie of the Year candidate Harry Shipp—Kitchen is a veteran of the MLS wars, having been a starter from Day One in 2011 after United selected him third overall following one very successful season at the University of Akron.

“Perry, he’s a bit of an old soul,” said midfield partner Davy Arnaud, a 34-year-old veteran acquired by D.C. United this winter. “He’s got a very mature head on his shoulders. He knows the things that are important to him on the field and off the field, and that’s his focus. It drives him and I think that’s why he’s successful.”

Of the nightlife and all that comes with being a professional athlete, Kitchen said, “I don’t know, I’ve never been into that. It’s never been my thing, I guess.”

That focus has seen Kitchen emerge as a candidate for MLS Best XI honors as his presence in central midfield has enabled United to emerge from a historically awful season last year to now leading the Eastern Conference heading into tonight’s battle with the New York Red Bulls (8pm; ESPN2).

“Perry’s got a great engine,” said D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, whose own gears revved pretty high when he manned central midfield for the club. “But he also sees the game very well, studies the game and every day tries to go out and get better.”

Kitchen is a grinder who covers a lot of ground and is more than willing to get stuck in on a tackle—his 57 fouls committed is second in MLS so far in 2014. But he also possesses significant skill, logging four goals and four assists so far this season—the former number doubling his prior career output.

“He’s really good at picking up his head and hitting that ball from a deep position over the top of the defense,” said Arnaud.

Consider this number crunching: in the 25 games Kitchen has played this year, United is averaging 1.68 goals per game, which would place the club fifth in MLS scoring. But in the two games Kitchen has missed this year, United hasn’t scored. Meanwhile, he’s still doing enough of the grunt work on defense to help United secure the second-lowest goals-against average in the league, 1.11.

Offensive production is not foreign to Kitchen. In his lone season of college soccer Kitchen helped Akron to an NCAA title, scoring six goals from defensive midfield, the last of which was the tying goal against the University of Michigan in the national semifinal after a great run from midfield followed by 35-yard rocket.

“I think because of the position he plays and because he isn’t afraid to go in hard, some people think he doesn’t have skill but he’s got a lot of technical ability,” said Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, who coached Kitchen at Akron.

Kitchen credits Arnaud, an attacker most of his career who has shared the defensive duties in central midfield, for his increased production this season.

“It wasn’t something that I set out to try and do,” Kitchen said. “It comes from the flow of the game. Davy and me, we play off each other pretty well and have good chemistry. One covers, stays back, and it lets the other go (forward.) I can push up knowing he’s got me covered.”

Inevitably, Kitchen’s strong season leads to talk of call-ups to the full national team, something Olsen expects to happen soon. “Yes, I’ve spoken with Jurgen (Klinsmann) about him,” Olsen said. “I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t called in to the January (U.S. national team) camp, at the latest.”

While Michael Bradley will likely remain a stalwart of the national team throughout the next cycle, it remains to be seen whether Klinsmann, and Father Time, will allow fellow central midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, both of whom will be 36 when the 2018 World Cup starts, to remain in the picture.

That likely creates an opening for the likes of Kitchen and Columbus Crew’s 21-year-old Wil Trapp, who replaced Kitchen as Akron’s defensive mid.

“I’m obviously a little biased,” said Porter, “but I think they’d make a great central midfield pairing” for the national team.

Kitchen would seem to be a prototypical Klinsmann player. He’s got the singular drive and commitment to improve and challenge himself that the German coach covets in his players. Kitchen also has the mixture of smarts and willingness to take chances going forward he needs for the team to be more proactive, to coin one of Klinsmann’s favorite phrases. And his ability to cover so much ground in front of the backs would allow Bradley and creators like Mix Diskerud the freedom to push forward and help the attack.

“You can easily see him in that Beckerman role,” Porter said.

Kitchen wants another shot in his country’s colors, in part to wash away some bad memories he’s had with the youth national teams. At the 2009 U-17 World Championship, Kitchen was abruptly switched to right back before the U.S. opener against Spain and after a poor first-half performance he was subbed off and never regained his starting spot.

Two years later, he was part of Thomas Rongen’s squad that became the first American team in 16 years to fail to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. And in 2012 he was on the U.S. U-23 team that failed to qualify for the London Olympics.

“Yeah, that drives you,” said Kitchen. “Those aren’t the best memories and I definitely want another chance with the national team to prove myself.”

If he does get called in, Kitchen's current coach thinks he’ll do very well. “As good as he’s been, I don’t think he’s done getting better,” said Olsen. “I think he has a whole ‘nother level.”

Do you think we'll see Kitchen in a U.S. jersey before January? Is he ready? Share your take below.

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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