Perry Kitchen grows into defensive midfield role for United

Perry Kitchen has carved a reputation as a valuable ally to D.C. United’s defensive corps. He wins tackles in midfield, snuffing attacks in their infancy. He keeps the ball moving, preventing sustained pressure.

Essentially, he gets them out of jams. It’s with the upmost admiration that center back Brandon McDonald refers to the third-year midfielder with the moniker “Slippy Feet.”

“You look at his feet, you can give him balls in tough situations and he finds a way to get out of them,” McDonald said. “He’s real greasy. So for me, I love having him in there.”

As United learned down the stretch last season, having a tempo-controlling defensive midfielder tends to be conducive to winning ways. After advancing to the Eastern Conference final in part thanks to Kitchen’s uptick in form, United (0-1-0) will hope for more of the same from the 21-year-old in their home opener Saturday versus Real Salt Lake (1-0-0).

Looking back, Kitchen acknowledges the beginning of last year — his first playing the position full time — was “somewhat of a struggle.” It wasn’t easy for Kitchen to deal with the rigors of playing central midfield day in, day out.

But by the fall, things changed. He picked his spots more carefully when challenging for the ball. Learned from watching tape with coaches. Became smoother in possession. Grew in confidence.

“I don’t think I’m at that form yet,” said Kitchen, the No. 3 overall pick out of Akron in the 2011 MLS draft. “But that’s definitely the goal to get there even quicker than I did last season.”

Kitchen’s surge coincided with coach Ben Olsen’s decision to partner him in central midfield with another defensive-minded player: Brazilian veteran Marcelo Saragosa.

Before the adjustment, Kitchen spent most of his minutes sitting conservatively behind playmakers Dwayne De Rosario and the since-departed Branko Boskovic. With Saragosa providing cover, Kitchen found more freedom to roam.

As Kitchen observed, Saragosa is “a guy that’s going to put in a great shift. He shares the workload with me, and it worked out very well last year.”

While Kitchen said he has no preference when it comes to United’s formation, all signs indicate Olsen intends to deploy dual defensive midfielders for the foreseeable future.

And this year, Kitchen has another veteran player at the position to learn from, with 33-year-old John Thorrington — a journeyman with considerable experience in Europe — competing with Saragosa for a regular starting spot.

“I haven’t known him for too long, but we talk like we’ve known each other for years,” Kitchen said. “He’s a great guy with great experience, and I’m just going to keep trying to listen to him and absorb as much as I can from him.”

After serving as a utility player during his rookie year, logging minutes at center back, right back and defensive midfield, Kitchen has begun to flourish while having a position to truly call his own.

So as he enters Year 2 as a full-time midfielder, what’s next?

“We’re expecting a lot,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “He’s a general in the midfield. He’s very crafty, very creative. … Give him time to nurture, give him time to grow, and he for sure one day will be one of the best D-mids in the league.”

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