During the Peter Nowak era, D.C. United has been fairly stable, as the second-year head coach and his staff have worked to create and maintain an atmosphere of consistency and reliability on the practice field and in the locker room. Most of the additions to the team in the past year have arrived via drafts and the discovery process, rather than wheeling and dealing in the trade market.
So it's understandable that team members are still coming to terms with the departure of defender Mike Petke, who was shipped to Colorado this week in United's first trade of the season.
"It's always tough when you lose a guy who's been here for years," said Dema Kovalenko, who has also been the subject of trade rumors. "It just makes you think. I was kind of shocked that it happened, but it happened and we have to deal with it and move on. It can happen to anyone, anytime - not just this team, but any team in the league."
Petke, an eight-year MLS veteran who was widely respected in the locker room, provided vocal leadership and tough-as-nails tackling on the back line. Brandon Prideaux and Bryan Namoff now become the first-choice selections to bracket rookie center back Bobby Boswell.
Nowak took pains to distinguish the coldly rational nature of a personnel move from the inevitable emotions that accompany a team member's departure.
"This is business, and I'm all about business," he said. "The players know me, and the situation is always difficult for us coaches, to let a person like Mike go. It was a very difficult decision for me as a person -- not as a coach, but as a person."
The Petke move, which The Washington Post reported to be in preparation for an international signing when the transfer window opens in August, further thins a D.C. defensive corps that has already suffered through an injury crisis this year, with Prideaux and Namoff missing action due to hamstring and rib injuries respectively.
Third-year man David Stokes is the only backup defender to see action this season, and has recently returned from a concussion suffered against New England last month. But Nowak expressed confidence in head trainer Brian Goodstein's staff.
"We do everything we can with our medical staff and our trainers," he said. "We've kept the whole group pretty fit and pretty healthy. We didn't have big injuries -- we've had some small stuff. We have to make it work, simple as that."
Kovalenko has bounced back from his offseason foot fracture ahead of schedule, and could make his first start of the season against FC Dallas. But that breakthrough has been overshadowed by reports that United are looking to trade the midfield terrier.
On Tuesday, Nowak emphatically denied the rumors, insisting that his former Chicago Fire teammate "is not going anywhere."
Kovalenko's raw intensity can be a double-edged sword, inspiring his teammates but sometimes forcing them to play shorthanded thanks to his penchant for collecting bookings. He has vowed to improve this aspect of his game.
"It's one of my goals this year," he said. "I'm not going to go crazy, I just have to concentrate on the game. People are always going to talk, on the internet or whatever. I don't even have internet, and it's one of the reasons -- because I don't pay attention to that stuff."
Kovalenko, despite the occasional disagreement with his old friend Nowak, said he has no desire to leave D.C. and is fully committed to the United cause.
"I didn't want to go anywhere," he said. "It's very difficult for any player in any situation to move, to go to a different team. When I came from Chicago, it was tough; new guys, new team, new environment, new city. It's like starting all over again.
"I told Peter, I'm not the kind of person who, if something goes wrong, to just throw everything away and have a new start somewhere else. That's not me -- I would like to work things out. I think I can help this team, and bring something different, and work my way into the lineup again."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.