Perry Kitchen reaping the rewards of facing challenges outside comfort zone

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- As is the case for most Americans living abroad for the first time, it didn't take long for Perry Kitchen to get his first dose of culture shock.

Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was the challenge of driving on the other side of the road that bit him. Or, in his case, it was parking.

"I popped a tire trying to parallel park the first week," Kitchen said with an amused look on his face. "You've got that space now on the other side, so it's something to get used to."

Fans stateside will be relieved to know the incident didn't involve the Lamborghini he won last year in a contest run by an MLS sponsor. He was forced to leave that vehicle back in the U.S., and with the lease expiring soon, might not drive it again. Regardless of the car he's driving, he hasn't had any problems since.

"I feel like I'm comfortable now finally," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview.

That comfort extends beyond Scotland's roads. Kitchen has been excelling on the soccer field as well, anchoring the midfield of Edinburgh-based side Heart of Midlothian (commonly known as Hearts). In fact, his transition to Hearts from MLS side D.C. United couldn't have been more seamless. He made his debut last March, just a week after joining the club. Two games later, he was playing in front of more than 49,000 fans against league powerhouse Celtic. He has been a mainstay ever since.

"Just speaking with Robbie [Neilson], our coach, just before I signed there, I liked everything that he was saying," Kitchen said. "I liked his philosophy for how he wants the team to play. The facilities, the fans, the setup, it's all been very positive.

"He wants us to pass the ball well, press high to win it back and keep teams locked in, which isn't the normal path that most Scottish teams take, so it's been a good experience."

So impressive has Kitchen's contribution been that last month he was named the team's captain, joining the likes of Gregg Berhalter, Claudio Reyna and Steve Cherundolo as Americans who have captained overseas clubs.

"To be honest, being named captain was a bit of a surprise with my time there," he said. "I'd only been there six months. Saying that, it's not something you turn down. You embrace that, and I'm just honored to have that role."

As Kitchen sits in the posh digs of the hotel the U.S. national team is calling home this week, his reserved nature gives the impression that he is one of those quiet captains, a lead-by-example type. But Kitchen admits that when he gets on the field, a different, more commanding part of his personality comes out.

"I think I'm a guy that can push guys, push the team, make sure that we're all moving in the right direction and getting the most out of guys one through 20," he said. "I'd say that's a good quality to have."

Kitchen has others, of course. He is a no-nonsense, tough-tackling presence in midfield but is capable of connecting attack to defense. Those attributes made him a linchpin for five seasons with D.C. United and prepared him for when he decided to test himself overseas. He indicated that the Scottish Premiership isn't all that much different than MLS. The games are fast-paced, and players are afforded little time on the ball. Although Kitchen has made the transition look easy, there have still been challenges.

"I think playing overseas has put me out of my comfort zone, in terms of what I've been used to," he said. "Living in a new country, moving into a new team is always a difficult adjustment. Saying that, I feel like those off-the-field things have kind of helped me better myself on the field. When you're not familiar with the culture, your surroundings, you go back to soccer as, 'That's what I do know.' You realize that this is your life, your setup, and you try to make the most of it. Soccer is what we all know, so you try to make sure that's at the top."

That approach has seen Kitchen called back into the U.S. national team ahead of friendlies this week against Cuba and New Zealand. But the landscape with the U.S. is very different than what he has encountered at club level, be it in MLS or overseas. The U.S. seems to produce an inordinate number of holding midfielders, and Kitchen has found himself looking up at the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones (when healthy), Sacha Kljestan, Kyle Beckerman and even Alejandro Bedoya at times. With Jones, Beckerman and Bedoya all out for a variety of reasons, Jurgen Klinsmann is looking to Kitchen and Danny Williams to make an impression ahead of World Cup qualifiers next month against Mexico and Costa Rica.

"They know it's all about timing," Klinsmann told reporters Tuesday. "They know the roster may look very different four weeks from now. So don't miss that moment. Make your impression. That's why we tell them, 'Every training session has a lot of meaning to us,' and hopefully they can make their case."

Kitchen's diligent approach to his profession has long been an asset, so that is unlikely to be an issue. He isn't letting the magnitude of the challenge overwhelm him, either.

"I think it's how you take each situation and try to make the most of it," he said. "I think my career has been more of a journey, as opposed to some guys who break through the ranks just like that. I understand that you just have to make the most of your opportunities and not get frustrated if things aren't going your way because that's part of the challenge."

He added, "It's just playing my game, doing what I can, and ultimately, it's up to Jurgen and the staff on how they want to arrange the team. But the main thing is staying involved."

If Kitchen can manage to do that, he might once again find a new comfort zone in tough circumstances.