By Ridge Mahoney
Why did Scottish club Hearts pursue former D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen and sign him to a nice contract in March?
Among his many attributes, he’s not a poser.
So said D.C. United U-23 coach Richie Burke, a native of Liverpool who coached in Scotland before taking his post with the MLS club in 2013. When the signing was announced in early March, Burke said of the combative midfielder, “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.”
After helping Akron win its only NCAA title in 2010 as a freshman, Kitchen elected to go pro. He says the mindset and the process of that decision resembled his recent choice to leave MLS after five seasons, during which he stamped his reputation as a hard-nosed tackler, dogged defender, and occasional contributor offensively. For a player who fills a rough-and-tumble role as defensive mid, he hits a pretty good shot and serves accurate passes. Those traits fit well into just about any team.
“Like this past season, it just felt like the right timing,” he says of electing to leave Akron. "Those are obviously huge decisions, but I think it paid off.”
Only three of his 158 MLS regular-season appearances were not starts and he started at least 30 games in each of his five seasons. He scored 10 goals, registered the same number of assists, and racked up 29 cautions while also ranking near the league in fouls. A Rookie of the Year finalist in 2011, Kitchen earned team MVP honors during its dismal three-win campaign of 2013.
His robust, committed play earned him accolades among United’s fans as well as head coach Ben Olsen. He debuted for the USA against Panama in 2015, completing a cycle that had taken him through stints with the U.S. U-17, U-20, and U-23 teams.
Last season was the final year of his MLS contract and as it unfolded agent Lyle Yorks mentioned on several occasions possible European opportunities. Negotiations between Kitchen and United eventually broke down. The MLS club reportedly offered him a salary of approximately $400,000 and there was also interest from foreign teams.
He was able to sign with Hearts after the close of the European transfer window because his MLS deal had expired, and received a work permit despite holding only three U.S. caps thanks in part to a letter of recommendation submitted by Jurgen Klinsmann.
“[My mind] wasn’t made up at that point, but as things continued to carry out it seemed more and more like the right timing,” says Kitchen. “If I’d signed with MLS I’d probably have stayed there. It gets tougher to move the older you get. It seemed like it made the most sense.”
Though the process took longer than is ideal and his arrival in early March limited him to 10 matches for Hearts, Kitchen says the adjustment to life in the Scottish League and Edinburgh, located about 40 miles east of Glasgow, has been enjoyable. Hearts (full name: Heart of Midlothian), founded in 1874, is one of the oldest soccer clubs in the world and very quickly after his arrival Kitchen learned of its long and rich tradition. Hearts last won the league title in 1960 and captured the last of its eight Scottish Cups just four years ago.
“I’ve talked to the guys and people in the front office about it,” says Kitchen. “There’s a ton of history with the club. They had guys on the team go to war in World War I and serve alongside their supporters. The club has a lot to be proud of, having players and fans fighting side-by-side, which is a pretty cool story.
“The fans are really incredible. They make you want to play in front of them. Their support is huge. It’s been a great experience so far. I’m still learning the league and getting settled in, but from the 10 games that I’ve been in, it’s been a pleasure.”
On the field, he’s not been troubled by adjusting to a new league along with a new culture. The style of play, he says, is similar to MLS and the Hearts manager, Robbie Neilson, encourages fluid play. With Kitchen a fixture in the starting lineup during final one-quarter of the season (38 games), Hearts finished third and claimed a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds.
“It’s similar to MLS in terms of the fast pace and tackles in midfield as well,” he says. “It’s been positive so far. I wouldn’t say it’s faster. It depends. When the summer months come in MLS it’s hard to keep the pace high, whereas in Scotland it’s always pretty mild. You can keep the game going 100 miles per hour. There’s different variables.
“Robbie wants us to play good football, to keep the ball and move it, play good combinations and good sequences. But there’s obviously times you have to read the game; if a team is pressuring the ball, you have to relieve some pressure, put a ball into the channel and let our forward run onto it. The main philosophy is to play good soccer and score good goals.
“It’s a new experience, a chance to grow and continue my career.”
He’s in a group of 22 players to play Puerto Rico on Sunday and has been named to the 23-man Centenario roster as well.
“It’s always an honor to be included,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be on the roster and very happy about that. I’m looking forward to hopefully another opportunity to put the jersey on.
“It’s only my fifth or sixth camp, so it seems pretty standard to me. Obviously, we want the trainings to be sharp so we can get what we want out of it. At the same time, Jurgen trusts us to be smart and enjoy the city as well.
“The guys are coming off their seasons so it’s just continuing staying in shape and sharp.”
Though the Scottish season ended just last week, because Hearts qualified for Europe the club has scheduled preseason camp to start June 15. His inclusion in the Centenario squad will delay his return to Scotland as well as any real break; Hearts plays its first game in the first qualifying round June 30.
“So it’s a quick turnaround but to play in a competition like that is definitely worth it,” he says. “It’s a great city to go walk around in and check out [Edinburgh Castle] and all the city has to offer. Most people let you do your own thing, which is nice.”
He regards the Centenario as a unique chance for Klinsmann and the players to test themselves against good competition in a prestigious tournament. Seldom has the U.S. played in the traditional Copa America and this commemorative event represents 100 years of history.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in this tournament because normally we’re not a part of it and this one is being played in the United States,” he says. “The guys will cherish it and remember it forever.”