Rookie Report: Kitchen playing above his age at DC United

Perry Kitchen

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Two days into his first professional preseason with D.C. United, Perry Kitchen’s nose endured a memorable introduction to MLS.

Kitchen had just begun a training drill focused on retaining possession in transition, and as he closed on the ball, his opponent’s clearance hit him square in the face.

“It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes into this session, it’s just the second day of training, and now my nose starts bleeding everywhere,” said Kitchen after a recent practice, motioning across his chest to show the splatter radius. “I was kind of like, well, I guess that’s my welcome.”

Though the rest of us might feel embarrassed by such a first impression, Kitchen, 19, shrugged it off with a laugh — though he did admit to initially being intimidated in the locker room because, “Some of these guys could almost be my dad.”

At first, DC head coach Ben Olsen wasn’t quite sure where the rookie out of the University of Akron would fit into his plans. But by April, Kitchen had worked his way into the starting lineup. Now, with two months left in the regular season, he has become a mainstay in the team's defense, starting 20 games this year in a variety of positions.

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1. Perry Kitchen

D.C. United

Kitchen has shown extreme durability (19 consecutive starts) and flexibility (starting in three different positions) throughout the season. United, currently on the outside looking in at the MLS Cup picture, are primed for a late run at their first playoff berth since 2007. Currently, they are only one point out of the wild card and six points out of second place in the East.

2. Zarek Valentin

Chivas USA

Valentin finds himself in a similar situation as Kitchen. His team has relied upon him heavily (22 GP) in a variety of positions and is on the playoff fringe, equal in points with D.C. United. If Chivas are going to make the postseason, Valentin will need a speedy recovery from an injury that has kept him out of the club's past two games.

3. Darlington Nagbe

Portland Timbers

Two months ago, Nagbe predicted that the then struggling Timbers would make the playoffs. The attacking midfielder's prediction may very well come true, as Portland are only behind New York for the final wild card spot on goal differential. If the expansion team is going to make the MLS Cup playoffs in its first try, Nagbe will likely be at the center of the action.

4. C.J. Sapong

Sporting Kansas City

Life just keeps getting better for Sapong and SKC. After a horrendous start to their season, which included a league-record 18 game winless streak, Sporting are one of MLS’ hottest teams at the best time. Sapong, who has embraced his club’s lone striker role, has more starts than Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury, while leading the team in assists (four).

“We knew eventually over next couple of years he would be able to help us, but probably didn’t think it would be game in and game out, let alone a guy that has played center back, right back and center mid for us,” said Olsen, who spent 12 years with United as a player before taking the reigns last August. “His soccer IQ for his age is remarkable … each time we’ve asked him to change roles for us he’s done a very good job.

“He’s so solid and seems so together, that sometimes you forget he’s as young as he is. I look at him like a third-year pro right now, a guy who’s steady and doing his job."

To further emphasize Kitchen’s value to DC, the No. 3 pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft has racked up more minutes this season than anyone elese on the squad but Chris Pontius. Even the summer swoon, something Olsen says every rookie goes through, hasn’t affected Kitchen, who has settled as the team’s everyday right back.

“I remember pretty vividly the time in my rookie year when I just hit a wall,” Olsen said. “It’s always a long season for these guys coming out of college, especially when the heat comes, but Perry only had a game or two when he wasn’t as sharp and snapped right out of it.”

Kitchen began the season playing center back, a relatively smooth transition from the holding midfield role he played in his one collegiate year. But the Indianapolis native solidified his place in the starting XI with his ability to move to the right side of defense, where he hadn’t played since living in the US Soccer residency program from ages 15-17, an experience that culminated in his captaining the US in the 2009 Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.

“We knew he’s a versatile kid, but we didn’t know he could play right back until this year,” said Olsen, who also pointed out the positives of Kitchen’s experience on this year’s US Under-20 US team, which fell one win short of qualifying for this summer’s U-20 World Cup. “You can do as much research as you want on a kid, but there is always still a question mark when they get to the pro level.”

Kitchen’s proficiency at such a tender age becomes all the more important down the stretch as the four-time MLS Cup champions search for their first playoff appearance since 2007. DC currently lie in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, three spots and three points out of an automatic berth, but only one point out of the final wild card spot with 10 games left in the regular season.

Despite giving up a handful of late goals and a few important points this summer while their young squad gelled, United are in the thick of the playoff race because six of their remaining games are against fringe playoff teams.

“All of our rookies are talented guys,” veteran midfielder Clyde Simms said. “It’s great to have that youth on the team. I personally care a lot about this club, so to have these young guys coming through and getting good minutes early on is only going to help this team in long run."