So D.C. United needs forwards and defenders but picked a midfielder at the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Wait, what?
Actually, to start, Perry Kitchen’s probably played more on the back line than he has at defensive midfield, where he started in 25 games this fall to help Akron win and NCAA championship.
But his selection by D.C. demonstrates that there’s more in play at the SuperDraft than positional needs. In fact, put him against the draft’s other two top picks to understand things better.
No. 1 overall pick Omar Salgado, for example, is just 17 years old, which means there’s obvious concern over when he’ll be ready to contribute. (For that matter, it also needs to be worked out when he’ll actually be able to play. A good explanation here by Fanhouse’s Brian Straus.) But how massive is Salgado’s potential? After bolting Mexico for the U.S. last year, MLS decided to sign him preemptively even though he didn’t have a club. Salgado trained with Vancouver, where he still couldn’t play on loan due to FIFA age restrictions, and yet the Whitecaps, by some indications, have been set on taking him at No. 1 ever since. Through his Spanish routes, he’s a trip to the consulate away from a European passport, too. Soccer is a business, and Salgado is an investment the Whitecaps couldn’t pass up. In addition, he’s got plenty of international soccer coming up in the next nine months outside of MLS with the U.S. u-20s which should make it clear he’s a special talent as well, even if he’s barely scratched the surface of his ability.
The case of Darlington Nagbe is different – a can’t-miss talent and undoubtedly the most tantalizing attacking player in the draft, and a no-brainer choice for the Portland Timbers, similar to Steve Zakuani with Seattle two years ago. Nagbe, the Hermann Trophy winner, was essentially the consensus No. 1 pick, given that so few knew about Vancouver’s plan. Kitchen is right there with him, but plays a different role.
“They’re two very different players in terms of what they bring to the table, but they’re both ready in their role to make an impact,” said Akron head coach Caleb Porter. “It looked like Vancouver wanted an attacking player, and when they didn’t take Darlington – for me Darlington is the most special guy in college soccer, in terms of skill, athleticism, game-changing, versatility. He can play anywhere in the attack, and he’s ready now, and he’s going to excite a lot of people. I’ve seen this kid every single day, and some of the stuff he does, it’s a whole different level.”
Which leaves Kitchen for D.C. United, which knew it desperately needed what the 18-year-old has in abundance, something he’s described repeatedly as his own best trait: leadership.
“It’s unusual with a guy that’s that young,” said Porter. “This old argument that leaders are born or made, I think he was born a leader. I’ve known this kid since he was 11 years old, and he had that presence then. It comes from, honestly, he just hates to lose. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, and so he leads because he wants to win. He realizes in order to win, he’s got to help the other ten guys work hard and do what he needs them to do in order to win the game. You can’t teach that. Everybody talks about leadership as this quality that a lot of people have, I’m not so sure they have at the level he has it.”
Kitchen also lists his favorite player as Manchester United hard-nosed defender Nemanja Vidic, which speaks to the qualities he admires.
“He’s always looking to get better, trying to get other people better,” said Chris Korb, Kitchen’s teammate at Akron and now in Washington. “He likes to tackle people. That’s for sure.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the Zips won a national title with Kitchen running the show in the middle. The question is, what did Akron do for him?
“I think what helped Perry with us is we played him at defensive mid,” said Porter. “He had played center back and outside back in residency for three years so we got him on the ball a lot more. I think we helped in his awareness. He’s having to play 360 [degrees], and he’s having to think a little bit quicker, and technically, he’s on the ball more. He got sharper as the year went on. In the role he played for us, he had to think a lot about not only his positioning but the players in front of him. He had to organize our midfield and our frontrunners, and hold them accountable. He took a jump technically, and I think he made jump a little bit tactically as well.”
Which leads back to where this post began, with the discussion of where Kitchen should play versus what D.C. United needs. D.C. general manager Dave Kasper said he expects Kitchen to vie for a starting center back spot, and he could be a nice complement to Dejan Jakovic, who could now be free to man-mark and tackle while Kitchen is the organizing influence in the back. Will he excite like Nagbe? Not necessarily. Will he make a high-priced jump to Europe some day like Salgago? Who knows. But there’s little question that Kitchen can be very, very good this season, and that's a perfect fit for a D.C. United team trying to rebuild. Ever since he took over as head coach, Ben Olsen has talked about making the team hard to beat. With Kitchen, United has made considerable progress in that department.
“He’s a ball-winner, tenacious, mentally tough, good in the air, smart,” said Porter. “He’s a high-end role player, and in a soccer team, you’ve got to have those guys that can do the dirty work and lead by example. I think his intangibles are what make him so special. I see him playing d-mid or center back, and I see him being an eventual captain one day.”