For all the responsibility Perry Kitchen has assumed in his career, it’s easy to forget the D.C. United midfielder is just 20 years old.
Professionally, he’s carried the weight of heavy expectations, entering MLS as a high draft pick last season and being thrust into the starting lineup from Day 1, eventually becoming the first rookie to lead United in minutes.
On the international stage, he was vice captain of the U.S. under-23 national team that earlier this year entered Olympic qualifying as a clear favorite but couldn’t punch a ticket to the Summer Games.
Whether it’s in success or failure, the perception of Kitchen is the same: He approaches the game the right way and says the right things. And the talent is undeniable.
“Perry is wise beyond his years,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid, Kitchen’s U.S. U-23 teammate. “His strength on the field, his tenacity, his fierceness in the middle of the park is definitely helping us to get the results that we need. His confidence has grown day in, day out. His touch, the way he’s moving, the way he’s turning the ball and distributing to the next level of players has grown.”
To Kitchen, the London Olympics kicking off last week was salt in a wound he thought had mostly healed. While D.C. teammate Andy Najar is in Britain, representing a Honduras side that claimed the berth most had pegged for the Americans, Kitchen is back with United, knowing his career’s window for Olympic glory is all but closed.
“It kind of wore off with time, but the Olympics started up so I’m kind of thinking about it,” Kitchen said. “Bill and I were actually talking about it, how it sucks not seeing a U.S. team out there. But you just have to move on. That’ll never define us as players, that we failed to qualify. But it’s definitely not easy.”
Kitchen rallied himself after returning to United from Olympic qualifying in late March, starting 17 straight matches while playing the full 90 minutes in all but one. When Dwayne De Rosario exited a 4-0 loss at the Houston Dynamo on July 15, he handed the armband to Kitchen, making the Indiana native the youngest captain in club history.
Although the No. 3 pick in the 2011 SuperDraft served as a utility player for United last season, playing center back, right back and central midfield, he has been locked this campaign into the defensive midfield position he thrived in during his one year at Akron.
“Last year, he was all over the place for us,” said defender Chris Korb, who played with Kitchen at Akron. “Now that he knows he’s in that role, I think he’s settled in more.”
Typically partnered centrally with the forward-thinking Branko Boskovic or De Rosario, Kitchen does much of the dirty work that allows them to prosper, closing down attackers, blocking passing lanes and winning 50-50 balls.
He’s also made an effort to improve his distribution, which he acknowledges wasn’t up to snuff at season’s start.
“I don’t think I’m to where I want to be yet, but I’ve gotten better at changing the point of attack,” Kitchen said. “When I was first playing the role, I was just keeping it to one side too much and we couldn’t get out and keep possession.”
Ultimately, Kitchen hopes to reach the level of the Seattle Sounders’ Osvaldo Alonso and Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, the players he considers the league’s gold standard at his position.
When it comes to getting there for United (10-7-3), who host the Columbus Crew (8-7-4) on Saturday, Kitchen’s philosophy is one he acknowledges as trite yet follows all the same.
“It’s a cliche — just work hard and you’ll get the results,” Kitchen said. “But seriously, if you put in the work, put your mind to it, have the whole team believing in what we can accomplish, you could get a lot further than you could ever think.”