WHILE Hearts players may be slightly irked getting only a four-week summer break, Perry Kitchen will be happy with no respite. The American midfielder hopes to play for his country in the Copa America in June, meaning he would have no time off at all.
Kitchen has been named in a 40-man provisional squad by USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann. That will be cut to 23 by May 20 and the Hearts player is thought to be on the border line for a place in the final group. Should he make the cut, he faces sectional matches against Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay in the 100th Copa America, which is being staged in his homeland.
It all becomes academic if he is left out of Klinsmann’s squad. Kitchen would willingly swap his summer holiday for international recognition but knows he faces a fight. The Copa America centenary will be the biggest football tournament staged in the USA since the 1994 World Cup, so holidays can wait.
Potentially, he could also miss the start of Hearts’ European campaign if his country reach the latter stages of the competition. The Tynecastle squad report for pre-season training on June 15 and face their first Europa League qualifier on June 30. Clearly, representing America matters a lot to the 24-year-old, who again displayed his class in Hearts’ 1-1 draw with Ross County at the weekend.
“It’s an honour to on that [list], for sure. It would be great to be included, but that’s up to Jurgen and the staff,” said Kitchen. “It’s very exciting. We’re not usually in that tournament so, for the 100th anniversary, they’ve included us and a couple of other teams. There will be a lot of good sides in the tournament and it’s exciting for sure.
“Right after the season, I’ll go over and get going [if selected]. The tournament starts early June so the team will meet up and get ready for it.”
The uncertainty of whether or not he’ll be kept on is something he’s prepared to tolerate. “It is what it is. I can’t control it. If I get an email saying I’ve made it, then awesome. If not, then I’ll focus on next year here.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, has offered Kitchen total support over his international prospects. “Any time the manager is behind you, that’s good,” said the player. “Robbie spoke to me and it would definitely be a tricky situation, not getting a break. It’s kind of beneficial since I’ve arrived halfway through the season.”
Kitchen’s performance was one of the positives from a disappointing match at Tynecastle on Saturday. Jack Hamilton, the Hearts reserve goalkeeper, made his first league start of the campaign to get some much-needed game time. He will be loaned out next season but proved, particularly with a one-versus-one stop from Alex Schalk in the first half, that he can handle Premiership football at the age of 22.
Prince Buaben also stood out on the right of the Hearts midfield and got forward to test Scott Fox in the Ross County goal several times. Just as the game seemed destined for a goalless draw, Juanma – a half-time substitute for Gavin Reilly – scored an instinctive striker’s goal on 84 minutes. Ross County sub David Goodwillie then headed the equaliser four minutes later.
Juanma’s goal was down to his movement to meet Buaben’s right-sided cross. That appeared to be enough for three points, but Hearts were hauled back on 88 minutes when Goodwillie headed home Martin Woods’ angled delivery from the left side. County’s effort across the 90 minutes matched that of their hosts and it would have been churlish to grudge them a point.
“Both teams were out there wanting three points and I thought we had it. We need to show better character to see it out. That happens sometimes,” admitted Kitchen. “We have to learn from it and do better. We knew Ross County were going to make it tough for us.”
County arrived with Fox having signed a one-year extension to his contract. Manager Jim McIntyre felt his team got what they deserved from a venue where they have never won.
“It was a deserved draw, it would have been very sore if we hadn’t taken anything,” he stated, before admitting that the match left much to be desired as a spectacle.
“It wasn’t the best game in the world to watch but there was plenty of toil and endeavour from both teams. We had the best chance to score first when Alex Schalk was denied by the Hearts keeper. He made a great save and you wonder if that will come back to bite you.
“Hearts are very strong at home but I thought we showed a great reaction to going behind by getting ourselves back level. The quality was poor, the pitch was difficult and you could see players slipping all over the place as the surface was brick hard, which didn’t help. There was plenty of misplaced passes and both teams can produce much better quality.”
Neilson echoed McIntyre’s sentiments and lamented Hearts’ inability to close the game out after taking the lead with only minutes left. “I was disappointed not to see the game out. We got ourselves in a winning position and gave away a slack goal,” he conceded.
“In the first half I thought we passed it all right but we got into good areas and didn’t put the ball in the box. Second half it was much the same and the times we did do it, we caused them problems. We need to make sure, especially at Tynecastle, that we’re causing teams more problems. The effort was there but it was just the quality. At this stage of the season, I think both teams are starting to feel it a bit.”