Kitchen, 23, has started at least 30 league matches since arriving from the University of Akron in 2011, occupying the pivotal defensive midfield role for the past four seasons. Jurgen Klinsmann called him into U.S. national team camp last winter, facilitating his international debut against Panama. He also appeared in a friendly against Mexico in April and remains on the outer edge of the player pool.
Where could Kitchen end up in Europe? Without regular national team assignments or a high profile in MLS, he lacks name recognition overseas. The Scandinavian leagues (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) would appear to be the most logistical destination. However, his agent, Lyle Yorks, is well connected in Europe and has a track record placing Americans in favorable situations.
Kitchen’s departure would provide some payroll flexibility for United. But it would also add to the list of questions about the interior of midfield heading into the winter months: Markus Halsti, who did not have a great campaign in his first year in MLS, will probably return only if he is projected as a full-time starter; Davy Arnaud, the heart and soul of the lineup, is 35 and recovering from a concussion; and Michael Farfan, acquired last spring after an unsuccessful stint in Mexico, apparently did not have his contract option exercised by the club.
Halsti ($275,000 base) and Arnaud ($212,500) have guaranteed contracts in 2016. If Halsti found a suitor in Europe, he and United might decide to terminate the contract. If healthy, Arnaud plays to return for a 15th MLS season. Farfan’s departure would come as a mild surprise, given his technical skills. However, injuries ruled out Farfan ($120,000) for chunks of the season and he wasn’t a perfect fit in the locker room.
Meantime, United must decide whether to exercise the option on attacker Chris Pontius, who, at seven seasons, has the longest-continuous service with the club. Since an MLS Best XI season in 2012, Pontius has been hampered by injuries annually (39 starts in three years). This season, while posting three goals and one assist in 23 appearances, he collected $365,000 in base salary and $396,000 overall (fourth on the payroll).
Pontius, 28, has value in MLS, so United is reluctant to set him free without compensation and allow him to find a new home via the re-entry drafts. (Pontius is one season short of being eligible for MLS free agency.) The California native is also cognizant of interest around the league and would probably pause before agreeing to a much smaller salary in order to remain with United.
Perhaps the most likely scenario: United exercises the contract option and then trades him to a club willing to inherit the salary. Presumably, United would not pick up the option without assurances a trade could be arranged.
Meantime, barring trades, most of the 2015 squad is expected to return. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defenders Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare, midfielder Nick DeLeon, and attackers Chris Rolfe and Alvaro Saborio agreed to new contracts during the season. Several others have guaranteed deals or will have their options exercised.
In the big picture, United is almost certain of remaining one of the lowest-spending teams in MLS — D.C. was third from the bottom this year — until the organization stems financial losses by moving into a new stadium in 2018. Officials are hopeful of breaking ground on the Buzzard Point project next summer.
While unlikely to sign a big-name, high-dollar player, the club does plan to address needs this winter through re-entry drafts, free agency, trades and other acquisition mechanisms. Financial flexibility will hinge, in large part, on whether Kitchen, Pontius and Halsti return. Combined, they collected more than $800,000 in base salary and almost $1 million overall.
MLS key dates:
Dec. 7: List of all players eligible for free agency and re-entry drafts made public
Dec. 8: Free agents may enter into negotiations
Dec. 9: Waiver draft
Dec. 11: First stage of re-entry draft
Dec. 17: Second stage of re-entry draft
Jan. 14: MLS college/youth draft in Baltimore
Jan. 22: Training camps open