D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen’s goal on Saturday night against the Chicago Fire was in some ways symbolic of his nature as a player: scrappy, persistent, but it got the job done. The ball hit the back of the net. At the time it looked possible as the game winner, though United conceded again to draw 2-2.
That’s perhaps a bit of an injustice to the nature of the former U.S. U17 men’s national team player and Akron Zip (Kitchen played a year of college soccer under Caleb Porter in 2010). A central midfielder who has been a constant fixture since his rookie season — Kitchen played right back, center back and in the middle of the midfield in his first year — as he enters his fourth season the performance on Saturday suggests that he’ll take another giant step forward this season.
He already has significant experience at just 22, having played in a youth World Cup and winning a national championship in his one season at Akron, along with more than 8,000 minutes in MLS already. Last year’s abysmal D.C. United campaign did him no favors, as he played more than 2,700 minutes in a year that everyone associated with the team would like to forget. However, he was more often than not the best player on the field in a number of those performances, though that doesn’t lend strong credence to his case.
One of many questions you can lob about this debate is what kind of role best suits Kitchen. Central midfielders in MLS come in different roles with the box-to-box variety, the more defensive/holding roles and obviously the attacking midfielder.
Kitchen is never going to be cast in the attacking midfielder role — chance creation remains one of the main statistics that eludes him on a regular basis, as his passing doesn’t really unlock a defense — and he’s lined up in front of the back for in a 4-1-3-2 (or 4-1-2-1-2) in D.C.’s first three games this season.
That’s the role he’s served in mostly in midfield, with a more offensive-minded center mid like Luis Silva or Dwayne De Rosario (last year) playing in front of him. And it’s a role that looks to suit him best, as he’s shown the ability to help United transition quickly, making the right pass at the right time to engineer the defense-to-offense movement.
To paint the picture of Saturday’s performance, take a look at his heat map (via MLSsoccer.com) and action areas (via Squawka).
That’s a role that at least visually resembles box-to-box. Part of that resulted from D.C.’s all around performance being a bit better than his first two games, controlling possession and allowing the team to dictate the game a bit more. Part of it was also thanks to the injury of Luis Silva, who exited Saturday’s game after suffering an injury to his ankle. Davy Arnaud was introduced as a sub in Silva’s place, not exactly a like-for-like replacement.
Kitchen’s action areas also looked much different in United’s first two games of the season, as he was more involved in the action in front of his penalty area or in the middle of the park.
So is a more offensive-minded Kitchen the key to a possible breakthrough? Obviously, replicating more performances like Chicago would help. Becoming more of a box-to-box player is something that could lead to more stats to reinforce his case. But Kitchen might not be the sort of player to go out and aim to get forward more, as he put it on Saturday.
“As a soccer player, you just have to read the game and see what the game needs and sometimes that means me getting forward, sometimes if it’s a game where there’s not much space, I’m going to have to sit back deeper,” he said after the game. “So, you just have to read the game, and if I get forward, great; if not, no big deal.”
Reading the game is something that Kitchen appears to do well, as his decision-making stands out. His distribution is smart, though nothing flashy, as the pass-matrix from Saturday shows (via Squawka). It mostly focuses on retaining possession, going side to side or passing backwards to his defenders.
A pair of moments standout, however with regards to how Kitchen can grow his profile and help his team from an offensive perspective. The first, is in the transition game. D.C. tends to rely a bit on the longball, and in the Chicago game of the 375 passes attempted against Chicago, 65 were classified as such by Squawka.
However, D.C. is ranked sixth in passes completed in the league through three games, meaning that it perhaps isn’t quite as bad as it seems at times — at least relatively speaking.
In the sequence below, Kitchen showcases the ability to jump start a quick counter attack: winning the ball, finding Eddie Johnson, who springs it.
It’s a similar case in this second sequence. Kitchen shoulders off a challenge in the middle of the park, slips the ball to Fabian Espindola, who springs Eddie Johnson in behind the Fire back line, and the foul Johnson earns ended up leading to D.C.’s first goal of the season.
That seems to be Kitchen’s best attribute: winning the ball, finding offensive outlets quickly and helping the team in its transition. Going forward, his ability to impact a game will vary depending on how he reads the game and how United sets up. It’s rare to see him in the final third, though depending on what head coach Ben Olsen decides to do, if he opts for a flatter 4-4-2, it could allow Kitchen more freedom to get forward.
The question obviously then becomes if that would fit his skill set and if he can consistently start to help the offense.
If not, and Kitchen remains in his more likely role playing as the lone holding midfielder, it might be harder for him to make a splash. That’s not a knock on him, but more about the nuances of that position are under appreciated and his role isn’t particularly glamorous. His primary focus is helping the team win, and there’s no question he’ll want to help his team’s defense improve (conceded six from the first three games).
But if he continues to have performances like Saturday’s against Chicago, and can evolve into a box-to-box threat, there’s no question that it will help both his team and individual profile in MLS.