WASHINGTON, D.C. - Unlike in the NFL and NBA, where even the youngest players are physical leviathans, MLS rookies could easily pass for everyday, ordinary-looking people. At a height of six feet, and weight of 160 pounds, 19-year-old D.C. United rookie defenseman Perry Kitchen is occasionally dwarfed by the reporters who interrogate him at his locker after every game.
After Thursday night's 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, Kitchen stood wrapped in a towel with one foot hooked behind the other, trying to answer questions as best he could. It was only the second time in United's six league games that Kitchen, taken with the third overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, had started and played the full 90 minutes.
But Kitchen's league commitments form only a small part of the wild ride that the University of Akron product has been on over the past few months.
"Everything's kind of been flying at me the past few weeks," Kitchen admitted Thursday night. "I haven't had much of a chance to catch my breath."
On March 19, Kitchen started and played the full 90 minutes in United's season-opening 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew. The next day, he was on his way to Dallas to join his U.S. National Team teammates in training for the CONCACAF U-20 championship. Thomas Rongen's team only needed to make the semifinals of the 12-team tournament to qualify for this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup. Instead, they went out at the quarterfinal stage, losing 2-1 to tournament hosts Guatemala as the U.S. failed to qualify for the bi-annual tournament for the first time since 1995.
For casual followers of the game, the result was an unfortunate footnote, but for those who have invested hopes, dreams, and dollars in the U.S. becoming legitimate contenders for the World Cup in the near future, it was a missed opportunity for the next generation to experience tournament play.
"That happens sometimes," said Kitchen when asked about the Guatemala result. "That's why soccer's the best game in the world. On their day, any team can get a result. I talked to all the guys after that game, and hopefully we can all learn from it.
Having missed road losses to New England and Colorado, Kitchen was able to rejoin United a few days earlier than expected thanks to the team's shock loss. However, a stomach bug forced him to miss the 1-1 home draw against Los Angeles April 9, though the rookie was well enough to come off the bench last Saturday to help United's defense keep their first clean sheet of the season, 3-0 over Toronto FC.
Which brings us to Thursday night, when, as opposed to the triumph of the Columbus game, Kitchen was on the field for all four New York goals.
"He did OK," D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said of Kitchen's performance Thursday. "We had some guys who had OK performances. No one really had a great night, and against a team like New York, you need a couple guys to have great nights."
"We weren't too sharp, and they capitalized on it," Kitchen said glumly in front of his locker. "Our marking in the box needs to be better." When asked how United's defense managed to lose track of New York's star striker Thierry Henry, not once, but twice, Kitchen could only say, "He's a great player. He's smart and he knows how to find gaps."
Kitchen hasn't been on the wrong side of many 4-0 beatings in his life. As a starter for the Zips, last year's NCAA champions, he was on the right side of 4-0 wins over Tulsa, Buffalo, and Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference Championship game, as well as a 7-1 win over Michigan, whom the Zips would beat again by the more respectable score of 2-1 in the national semifinal last December.
But like at Akron, Kitchen will ultimately be asked to form the centerpiece of United's back line, along with 25-year-old Dejan Jakovic, 26-year-old Marc Burch, and Kitchen's Akron teammate, 23-year-old Chris Korb, who was selected by United with their second-round pick (31st overall) in the SuperDraft.
"Perry's a good young player," said Burch, the old man of the group. "He shows great leadership. There are some things that he still needs to learn, but it's not like he's doing bad. He's doing good enough. He'll get it all, eventually."
Burch's critique could very well apply to the whole of United's young defensive unit, which is loaded with talent but can be found lacking in cohesion, as on Thursday night.
"We have the skill, we have athleticism, we have a good mentality," Korb said Thursday. "We just need to get better and focus on improving game-by-game."
"I just hope [this season] to do what I do as a defender," said Kitchen. "Obviously, you're hoping for a shutout every game, but right now it's more about knowing where the opportunities are and keeping that basic defender's mentality going forward."