Perry Kitchen’s summer is about to intensify as the Copa America kicks off in searing hot California. Temperatures will be pushing 30 degrees when Kitchen’s USA open the tournament against Colombia in Santa Clara in the early hours of Friday morning.
This year’s tournament is being staged in the United States to mark its 100th anniversary, or “Centenario”, and the Hearts midfielder is in Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad. He is expected to start amongst the substitutes against the Colombians in the 68,500-capacity Levi’s Stadium. Klinsmann wants the USA to take the competition by storm. The opposition is fierce, though.
Argentina and Lionel Messi, Brazil and Philippe Coutinho, Uruguay and Luis Suarez, Colombia and James Rodriguez. It’s like someone has rounded up the most frightening players from North America to South and brought them all together. Kitchen is not the only man involved with a Tynecastle connection, either. Holders Chile have the former Hearts striker Mauricio Pinilla with them. He is now 32 and starring with the Italian club Atalanta.
Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay are the USA’s three group opponents. The Americans don’t normally participate in the Copa America but were asked to host this special 100th edition. Seattle, Santa Clara, Passadena, Glendale, Houston, Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia, East Rutherford and Foxborough are the cities preparing to be invaded by Latin Americans between now and the final on June 26.
Klinsmann expects a strong competition to rival the European Championship, which gets underway in France next week with 24 nations competing for the first time. “I think 16 teams, six CONCACAF nations that are very good, very strong, and obviously the South Americans are all powerhouses,” said Klinsmann of the Copa.
“If you look at their World Cup qualifying campaign and look at who’s on top right now, who’s fighting four, five, six, that’s impressive. It’s not an easy go for Argentina, Brazil, even if you always say these guys should win the World Cup. So what you’re going to see now in this upcoming Copa America is very special and easily can compete with the European Championship. That’s big, and you want your players to realise that. I think they can do that.”
Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley are the experienced figureheads within the USA squad. They have the big-tournament experience which Kitchen and other younger members lack. It will be vital to American hopes of matching more illustrious nations, starting against Colombia.
“We are going to go for it,” said Klinsmann. “We are going to do that and we are going to try and make it happen on Friday because it would give us a big, big boost towards the game against Costa Rica and then finishing off the group with Paraguay. Similar to the World Cup, we need a good result in the first game. This is a little bit like two years ago [in the 2014 World Cup]. We talked about that with the Ghana game before Brazil, before the World Cup started, we made it kind of like our final. We start the tournament with a final.”
They may not have been starting it at all. The competition was shrouded in uncertainty after a number of high-ranking CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials were arrested last year. The Americans fought to remain as hosts and are now eager to put on a show for the rest of the continent.
“When you get an opportunity like this, and half a year ago we didn’t even know if this Copa America would happen or not, then you really just want your players to realise how big an opportunity this is,” said Klinsmann. “This is the biggest showcase you can have besides a World Cup in South and in North America.”
Should the USA reach the latter stages, Kitchen will likely miss Hearts’ opening Europa League qualifying ties as he will then be due a break. He only arrived in Edinburgh in February after deciding to leave DC United and pursue a career in Europe. His ultimate aim was to prove he had the quality to represent his country on the biggest stage. That chance will come over the next three weeks.