BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
As his Hearts team-mates head for assorted beaches and resorts around the world for some deserved rest and recuperation, Perry Kitchen has been afforded no such luxury as he pursues his American dream.
Training sessions in 35 degree temperatures, gruelling distances to cover in a sprawling schedule and the expectations of a nation to contend with.
It hardly constitutes a close-season break for Kitchen, who made such a positive impact in Scotland in his 10 appearances for Hearts following his arrival in March. However, he would not have it any other way.
The former DC United star is honoured to be part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s Copa America squad and is lapping every moment of a competition which has seen the likes of Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez pitch up in the United States to celebrate 100 years of South America’s most prestigious competition.
“It was a hectic few months for me, with the move to Hearts and coming straight into the team,” he told Capital City Press. “But this chance to play in a Copa America on home soil is not something that will come around again. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“The support we experienced in the first game was nothing short of incredible and that feeling of being part of a major tournament in your home country is a very special experience.”
Kitchen was an unused substitute as the hosts opened the tournament with a 2-0 defeat against Colombia in front of 69,000 fans at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
After a 2,200-mile trip to Chicago, 39,000 spectators saw Klinsmann’s men tear Costa Rica apart 4-0 at the Soldier Field, with Kitchen again restricted to a watching brief.
Nevertheless, with just four caps to his name, the achievement of simply making the cut for the competition should not be underestimated – and he believes his switch to Tynecastle was a major factor in his selection.
Klinsmann has made no secret of his desire to see as many Americans as possible plying their trade in Europe and gave his backing to Kitchen’s decision to move to the Scottish Premiership.
“I think Jurgen has been happy with my progress since moving,” he continued. “There are some great players who didn’t make the 23-man squad, so I must be doing something right to have made the cut!
“I’m thankful and excited that he saw enough to include me in the roster.
“I feel like the way I ended the season with Hearts gave me momentum for the Copa. It was easy to come straight into the camp and work alongside some great players in the U.S. camp.
“Whether I make it on the field, it is a fantastic experience to be part of the group, training alongside some experienced players and soaking up the atmosphere of a massive tournament.”
He will aim to take that experience into next season with Hearts, assuring supporters that, despite adapting to the rough and tumble of the Scottish Premiership seamlessly, there is plenty more to come from him.
With the Jambos hierarchy keen that he is afforded some sort of summer hiatus, he is likely to be absent for the Europa League first qualifying round tie at the end of this month. However, he hopes his return to Hearts duty is worth the wait.
“I was maybe a little surprised with just how quickly I managed to settle in,” he continued. “But that is credit to everybody at the club. All the staff and players at Hearts have made it an easy transition process.
“With all the support I was getting, it was easy to focus on my football and hopefully the Hearts fans were happy with what they saw.
“Moving to Europe is something I have always aspired to in my career and it was great that everything went smoothly, and I can’t wait for the season to get under way so I can experience a full campaign. I think there is a lot more to come from me.”
However, he is quick to eschew any desires for personal plaudits, adding “my big aim is always to be part of the team and get wins”. If that contributes to a title tilt next term, building on the third-place finish last year, then all the better.
“Challenging towards the top of the table has to be the aim for the squad,” added Kitchen. “We certainly have the quality to do that. I’ve seen enough of the squad to know that.
“But that doesn’t mean we can get complacent. I realised quickly that every game is a battle in Scotland, every fixture is a fight and no team gives you an easy match. We need to be ready for that and stay focused through the entire year.”