Coaching staff at DC United almost worship Perry Kitchen, the American international midfielder who is poised to join Hearts.
“He’s not one of these posers. He’s not a boy who will just chase the money, he’s not a party kid, he’s very reliable. It’s a great signing for Hearts,” says Richie Burke, the former Livingston manager now in charge of DC United Under-23s.
Burke describes Kitchen as a solid and industrious midfielder and admits management at the Washington club were desperate to keep him. Kitchen refused a yearly wage of around £300,000 to stay because he is determined to further his international career by playing in Europe. The rejected contract would have seen him join Major League Soccer’s Designated Player list – the top-bracket footballers allowed to earn above the league’s salary cap.
Instead, the 24-year-old pitched up at Riccarton on Monday morning and is now close to finalising a move to Tynecastle. A UK work permit has been approved for the next step in his career, which the player hopes will lead to more international recognition from USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He already has three full caps. Long-term, his sights may well be fixed on mainland Europe but, in the meantime, he represents a real signing coup for Hearts.
“I’ve known Perry since he came out of college and he’s a really good, solid kid,” continued Burke. “He’s not creative, he’s a very solid defensive midfielder. For us, he sat in front of the back four and just broke things down. He’s very athletic, he’s quick about the ground, he’ll tackle well, he doesn’t get beaten often and he’s good in the air.
“He can play centre-back as well as midfield. In college, he was a centre-back but now he’s more of a defensive-minded midfielder. He doesn’t score many goals, he doesn’t really create an awful lot, he hasn’t got brilliant range in his passing, but he’s very solid in everything he does. He’s very typically American.
“He’s got a really good character and he’ll fit in well in Scotland. He was involved in a lot of community work here, that’s partly why he was a big fans’ favourite. We have the DCU Foundation here that he worked with as well. He was a marquee player for DC United and the fans loved him.”
When Burke reveals that DC United sought Kitchen’s replacement from AC Milan, the midfielder’s calibre is put into context. “We haven’t replaced him yet. They were trying to get Antonio Nocerino from AC Milan but he ended up signing for Orlando City. There’s a little bit of a void left in midfield. “I think Perry had his heart set on going overseas because he wants to really advance his international career. Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t really give a chance to many MLS-based players if they haven’t done anything overseas. That message is pretty loud and clear amongst the players so, if they really want to make a mark at international level, they have to try and go overseas.
“I think he’ll do well in Europe. DC United drafted Perry from college a few years ago and he went straight into the first team. I was at Livingston for a couple of years when he was playing here. He was in the first team throughout last year and I was coaching the under-23s, which is basically our reserve side. We train alongside the first team so I’ve watched him closely for a long time and he’s very strong.”
Kitchen graduated from the University of Akron in 2010 and became an instant mainstay in DC United’s midfield. Despite being only 19, he played more minutes than any other player in his debut season of 2011. He is well renowned across the States for his ability to influence games and is often identified by opponents as a key man.
“I think he annoyed my old coach at Houston because he’s the kind of player who always gets stuck in,” says Andy Driver, the former Hearts winger who faced Kitchen during his two-year spell with Houston Dynamo. “I remember when we were doing video analysis, our coach, Dominic Kinnear, used to point him out as the heartbeat of the DC United team. He was definitely a standout player in the league.
“I’m a bit surprised Hearts managed to get him – it’s a really good signing. He’s a good player on the ball and he’s got a good engine, but he gets stuck in. He likes to put a tackle in, which our coach pointed out to us. He’ll definitely suit Hearts and he’ll do well in Scotland.
“Hearts are a big club and they’re going in the right direction. Most people in America won’t know much about them or the Scottish league. In the MLS, you can make a name for yourself but you still aren’t well-known over here in Europe. You need that first step on the ladder and I don’t think there’s a better team to do that with than Hearts right now.
“Kitchen will want to cement a place in the American team. They pick different squads for different games so he’s got to make sure he’s involved for the big games. It would be good for Hearts to have an American international in the team. Football is growing in America and the national team is pretty good, so that shows the quality he’s got.”
One difficulty may be trying to reach full match fitness with only two months of the Scottish season remaining. Kitchen’s last competitive outing was on November 8 last year for DC United against New York Red Bulls. He must strive to get up to speed quickly once his transfer is complete – a predicament Driver knows well.
“I went to Aberdeen a year ago just now and I was that far behind. By the end of the season, I was even further behind,” he admits. “You aren’t playing well and you end up thinking there’s no chance, so that will be a challenge for him. People will need to give him time because the MLS season ends in November and he hasn’t been playing matches for a while.”