- - Monday, October 10, 2016

A return to Washington presents plenty of welcoming sights for Perry Kitchen — old friends, former teammates and, perhaps most importantly, familiar food.

After five seasons with D.C. United, the Indianapolis native departed MLS to sign with Scottish club Hearts of Midlothian in March. Back in town with the U.S. national team for a friendly against New Zealand on Tuesday at RFK Stadium, Kitchen made sure to put a trip to Tex-Mex eatery Guapo’s on the agenda.

“The Mexican over there is not great,” Kitchen said, “so I’ve got to get my fix in.”

While life in Edinburgh has presented Kitchen with an off-the-field learning curve, the 24-year-old has hit the ground running in the Scottish Premier League. After starting seven consecutive games to end the 2015-16 campaign, Kitchen has been in the lineup for the past five matches this season.

Last month, Kitchen was named Hearts’ captain — a remarkable development for a young player with limited experience at the club.

“It’s certainly been an adjustment,” Kitchen said. “Saying that, the club has been supportive of trying to help me settle in. Anytime you’re moving, it doesn’t matter if it’s out of the country or in the states — it’s always going to be an adjustment. But I feel like I’m settling in really well.”

A prolific ball-winner in central midfield with growing attacking prowess, Kitchen impressed U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann with his play in Scotland this past spring. Although the midfielder had logged just 45 minutes over three international matches, that club form was enough for Klinsmann to place Kitchen on the Americans’ 23-man roster for the prestigious Copa America Centenario this past summer.

Perry is a general, man,” said U.S. and United goalkeeper Bill Hamid. “I’ve seen it from the first day that I stepped on the field with Perry. He’s world class, from his attitude to his preparation to how he goes about his work. I’ve learned a lot from Perry on and off the field myself just being his teammate. I’m proud of the steps he’s taken and where he’s at in his career right now.”

While Kitchen’s experience with the senior national team remains limited, the Akron product was a stalwart of the U.S. Under-17, U-20 and U-23 programs.

As the Americans prepare for the region’s final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, which kicks off with matches against Mexico and Panama next month, Kitchen offers a fresh option at a defensive midfield position largely dominated by aging veterans.

“He’s a guy who, even though he’s not that old, is a real professional in every way, in terms of the way he looks after himself, the way he trains, the way he competes,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “When you’re a guy who gets those things right day in and day out, you set the tone for others.

“He’s a guy who in some ways isn’t the first person that everybody talks about but obviously has become an important player at Hearts and continues to push his way into this group.”

With just one international start — a May friendly against Puerto Rico in which he played an unfamiliar wide midfield role — Kitchen has been a good soldier for the U.S. over the past two years, serving as a roster regular while earning few chances to see the field.

Playing in the comfortable setting of RFK Stadium on Tuesday, Kitchen hopes the match against New Zealand presents the latest step on his path from promising national team prospect to dependable contributor.

“It’s a huge opportunity, just like all games are when you’re here,” Kitchen said. “Especially being at my old home stadium, it adds a little extra to it. When those chances come, I want to be ready. It’s always up to Jurgen and his staff what they want to do, and you have to respect that and just do what I can when my name is called.”

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