In the 80th minute of Wednesday's friendly between Mexico and the United States, an opportunity presented itself. Mix Diskerud received a pass on the side of the box, and immediately passed back to its sender. That first pass had originated from D.C. United's midfielder, Perry Kitchen. Just days removed from scoring twice against the New York Red Bulls, Kitchen didn't hesitate, striking the ball first time.
Only this time, his shot was blocked, and the opportunity was gone.
"I definitely think that should be a goal. I think it's a good chance, a good opportunity, but I definitely think I should put that away," Kitchen told reporters after United's practice on Friday.
Kitchen's evolution as a goal scoring threat seemed like a distant dream when he broke into the league in 2011, as the third pick of the MLS SuperDraft. He scored once that first season, slotting a ball home from close range against the Portland Timbers, while mainly deployed as a right back.
But as he transitioned into his more natural defensive midfielder position, the goals dried up for the former University of Akron standout, as he netted just once in the next two seasons, despite playing a full complement of games. The tide turned last season, with Kitchen finding the back of the net five times, in a myriad of ways.
A header against Toronto. A breakaway finished against Sporting KC. Mop up jobs against the Chicago Fire and Chivas. And with his two goals added on last week, it's easy to see that he's offensive game is evolving over time.
"You can always get better in that sense," Kitchen added. "You have to pick and choose your moments. It's always nice to get goals, so I'm going to continue to do that. But saying that, I'm a defensive midfielder, so I know my role first."
Also appreciated by his coach last week was his overall performance. Though United had started off well in the league this season, Kitchen's play through the first four games wasn't quite up to the high bar that he set for himself. But it was no coincidence that Kitchen's best game of the season just happen to fall in line with United's best performance thus far.
"I was more pleased with his overall play [against New York] last week than the goals," United manager Ben Olsen said. "The goals were a little bit gravy, when you're talking about Perry. Breaking up plays, and him being good in possession, and looking forward, and dictating the way we play, is still what we're looking for in him week in and week out."
Though he has found a recent penchant for scoring goals for United, the teammates he protects at the other end of the field are grateful for the work and effort he exerts in front of the defense.
"He's a ball winner, he does the dirty work for this group, and without him my job would be a hell of a lot tougher," United captain Bobby Boswell said after practice on Friday. "Its great when he scores the goals, but his work is more vital in the middle half of the field, defensive half especially."
24 hours after scoring the two goals against the Metros, Kitchen got the call from Jurgen Klinsmann that he was selected to replace Michael Orozco on the roster for the US for the friendly against Mexico. He was then called upon earlier than expected to enter the, as Kyle Beckerman pulled up with a thigh injury, giving the United midfielder 27 minutes on the field.
What an action packed 27 minutes it was too. A like-for-like replacement for Beckerman, Kitchen played the part well, making his presence known defensively, making several tackles, and shuttling the ball forward to the playmakers. And then there was the blocked shot, as well as a header from a corner that was wide of the mark.
"I think he did well. I think he knows it," said Olsen. "I thought he did exactly what the game needed, won some tackles, and his physicality was right on. With the ball, he kept [it], but he played some balls forward, and he gets himself a scoring chance or two."
With Kitchen back in town, and United preparing to face Houston Dynamo on Saturday at RFK, the trick now will be to get Kitchen to the next level, the level where he won't be a replacement for Klinsmann's squad. The point where he'll be called in immediately, and instead of coming on as a sub, playing the full 90 minutes that United supporters have come to expect week in and week out of Kitchen.
It's now up to him and the United staff to get him that next level, as Olsen pointed out.
"He's got a ways to go. We're constantly trying to get him to where he needs to be. There's room to grow with Perry, and he knows that. And we do our best to foster his growth. But that foundation, the focus, the competitiveness, his hate for losing is tough to come by."