By FRANCO PANIZO
Perry Kitchen is no stranger to adversity, having been apart of the U.S. Under-23 men's national team that disappointingly did not qualify for this summer's Olympics in March. But while Kitchen struggled in the U.S. team's failed attempt to reach London, he has had no such problems in his second season in MLS.
After piecing together a solid rookie year for D.C. United in 2011 in which he played in 31 league matches, Kitchen has avoided a sophomore slump this season. A big reason for that is due to him being settled in as a defensive midfielder. Whereas last year his versatility, combined with team needs, forced him to spend time at an array of positions, 201 has seen him evolve into a rock in midfield for a much-improved United team.
Kitchen's willingness to do what is best for the team and his hunger to further improve as a player has benefitted Eastern Conference leaders D.C. United. The 20-year-old has provided a reliable blanket in front of the back four, and his performances this season have drawn rave reviews from fellow teammates, his coaches and others around the league.
"He's still young, still developing, still growing," said D.C. United midfielder Dwayne De Rosario. "Like I said earlier in the year, he's a guy that wants to learn. He's a guy that listens and wants to develop and anytime you have a kid that has that attitude, sky's the limit. I stand by my word: I still think he's going to be one of the top defensive midfielders in U.S."
United head coach Ben Olsen does not necessarily disagree with De Rosario's sentiments towards Kitchen, but he does want to temper any hype that might be coming the American prospect's way.
"No question," said Olsen when asked if he agreed with De Rosario. "Look, let's not get crazy with the expectations but I certainly think (as far as) defensive midfielders his age in this country, I put him up there right now."
That is not to say that Kitchen's season has been flawless. The Indianapolis native, who has started in each of the 14 league games he's played in this year, admitted that his most recent performance in United's 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union was below the standard of his other outings this year.
Kitchen and United lacked the necessary bite and energy needed at the start of most road fixtures and Philadelphia took advantage of that, pushing them back into their own half for much of the match. Kitchen and United withstood the pressure, however, and they then found the winning goal before recording a cleansheet.
"I don't think it was terrible but compared to past performances I think it was a little bit of a drop off," said Kitchen. "I think personally I can do better. I think we as a team need to perform better if we want to have consistent results and have consistent, quote unquote, dominant performances."
Kitchen may not have felt his showing against the Union was dominant, but he demonstrated improved skill on the ball and the ability to add something to D.C. United's attack. On a few occasions, Kitchen got forward and provided an outlet for his teammates, a rare sight for a player who is known mostly for his toughness and defensive abilities.
Getting involved a bit more on the offensive side of things is something Kitchen does not want to shy away from. In fact, he admits he would like to do more of that in the future, though not at the cost of his primary duties.
"First and foremost, my responsibility is to defend and protect the guys behind me but if I feel like I have a chance to go forward and make that through ball or even shoot, I'll try to do that," said Kitchen. "But like I said, that's not going to be my main focus. If I feel like I can, for sure."
That attitude is just one example of how Kitchen is coming into his own in his second season with D.C. United. And while part of that may be due to him having a solidified role as the team's starting defensive midfielder, his continued growth as a player is surely playing a role as well.
"He's maturing each week and it's good to see," said Olsen. "A physical guy that gets better with the ball each week. It's a position that he will continue to grow into and hopefully we'll have him in there for years to come."