Perry Kitchen and Ben Olsen
USA Today Sports

For DC United duo Perry Kitchen and Steve Birnbaum, USMNT call-ups just the first step

When D.C. United gather for pre-season workouts in just a few days, they’ll be without a pair of their key contributors from 2014: Perry Kitchen and Steven Birnbaum.

Neither player is home nursing an injury, however. Instead, the pair were invited to Jurgen Klinsmann’s January USMNT camp, where both are getting their first taste of national team duty at the senior level.

Kitchen has long been talked about as a potential USMNT player, often mentioned as a potential senior team contributor but never actually called upon. He is in many ways United’s unsung hero and has been perhaps their most consistent contributor in recent years, flying under the radar while doing the thankless work of a defensive midfielder.

Though the Akron product has gotten his shot at the youth level – having played on the U-17’s, U-20’s and U-23’s – he’s waited patiently through a four-year MLS career for his first senior call-up.

“Perry has been waiting for a long time for this,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft. “He’s very deserving of getting a look. He’s the type of kid that will rise to the occasion, he’ll rise to the next level. It might take him a little bit, but he’s too good a person, too good a kid, too many intangibles not to succeed at each level. I’m looking forward to watching him get in there and show what he can do.”

“It’s always been one of my dreams to play for the full team,” Kitchen told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview earlier this week. “So to have an opportunity to do that is great. I’m just looking forward to this chance and the opportunity to show what I got, I guess. I’ve never been in this situation but I’m going to enjoy every moment of it for sure.”

Strangely enough, Kitchen was listed as a defender when last week’s roster announcement was made, something that many pundits – and even Kitchen himself – found a bit odd. Though the d-mid has played on the backline before, including with the US U-23s in 2012’s failed Olympic qualifying campaign, he’s almost always been deployed in central midfield.

“I’m not sure [what position I’ll be played at] – I guess I was a bit surprised by how I was listed, but we’ll find out when I get there.”

If Kitchen is tapped to play his everyday d-mid role, it also remains to be seen exactly how he’ll be deployed. Kyle Beckerman – Klinsmann’s current first-choice defensive midfielder – plays a more conservative style, directing traffic from the back and providing cover for his backline. In 2014, Kitchen adopted a bit more of an attack-minded approach, interchanging effectively with Davy Arnaud and notching a career high five goals in the process.

“I guess that’s up to the staff there to decide how to use me, if they want to use me,” said Kitchen. “I’ll be open and ready for any challenges and roles they have for me – I’ll try my hardest at any role that they think best for me.”

Though Birnbaum has been a contributor on the youth level as well, his rise to his first senior team call-in has certainly been both more meteoric and unexpected than Kitchen’s.

Picked second overall in the 2014 SuperDraft, the Cal grad seemed to be United’s choice for a long-term replacement at center back. Few, though, gave him a great chance of starting consistently for D.C. so quickly, as he came into his first MLS season behind Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke on the depth chart.

But when Parke went down with a combination of injuries throughout the year, Birnbaum stepped in and excelled, playing 20 or so largely error-free games and in the process placing himself on Klinsmann’s radar.

“I couldn’t be more happy,” Birnbaum said earlier this week. “I knew it was kind of a long shot but I’m super excited to [be called up.] I’m nervous obviously but I’m just trying to play my game. I’ve been trying to get as fit as possible going into camp, that’s the main thing. Once I heard from Jurgen, I’ve just been crushing fitness and getting out there as much as I can.”