After D.C. United allowed four goals in back-to-back MLS contests, coach Ben Olsen knew his team needed to make a change.
United was conceding left and right with no clear culprit. Opponents scored from the run of play and on set pieces. Poor marking was to blame on some goals, while a lack of communication caused others.
So Olsen shuffled his back line for United’s last two matches, most notably inserting athletic rookie Ethan White at center back and shifting fellow first-year player Perry Kitchen from his usual post in the middle to right back.
Thus far, it has worked. After picking up a 2-1 win over Seattle on Wednesday, United recorded their second shutout of the season Saturday with a scoreless tie against FC Dallas.
“It’s coming,” Kitchen said. “We’re still not perfect, not by any means. But it’s definitely better than those past few games. We continue to progress, and it’s good motivation to see that we’re getting better results.”
For the 19-year-old Kitchen, the No. 3 overall selection in January’s MLS SuperDraft, the transition to playing right back has been smooth, even though he doesn’t have extensive experience at the position.
Deployed as a defensive midfielder during his one season at Akron, during which he helped lead the Zips to an NCAA title, Kitchen offers the clean distribution and on-the-ball comfort necessary to adequately handle his newfound offensive responsibilities.
With his experience at center back, where he plays for the U.S. under-20 national team and made his first three starts for United, he possesses the defensive prowess necessary to hold opposing attackers in check.
“He’s a good tackler,” defender Dejan Jakovic said. “Obviously, he plays with a lot of heart, and he wins tackles and knows how to play.”
As White pointed out, though, Kitchen isn’t completely inexperienced at the position. When the two defenders first played together as part of the U.S. youth national team program several years ago, Kitchen was playing right back.
But few are expecting the rookie to completely comprehend the position’s subtleties at this point. When it comes to timing his overlapping runs and joining the attack, Kitchen acknowledges being a bit conservative.
“It’s always fun to go forward since I’ve been sitting back at center back for a while now,” he said. “I was just trying to pick my moments [against Dallas], and when I was going forward I wasn’t trying to do anything too crazy.”
On the defensive side, Kitchen on Saturday largely drew the assignment of containing the pace and trickery of Dallas midfielder-forward Fabian Castillo. The Indianapolis native more than held his own, helping render the dangerous Colombian an essential nonfactor.
“Perry is playing probably out of position, but you wouldn’t know it,” Olsen said. “Him knowing when to get forward still has a little work to do, but that’s to be expected when you don’t know that position. But defensively, he’s very committed.”
Since longtime starter Bryan Namoff suffered a concussion late in the 2009 campaign that eventually caused him to suspend his playing career, United has had a revolving door at right back.
“We’ve got a good mixture of athletic guys, guys who can win balls in the air, and a good mixture of guys who are smart and composed,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “It makes a very solid back line.”
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