Bruce Arena was convinced he'd never return to Major League Soccer again after eight years as the U.S. national team coach. Dema Kovalenko never says never.
A year after bolting D.C. United to play for FC Metalurh Zaporizhya in his native Ukraine, Kovalenko is back in MLS as a member of Arena's New York Red Bulls. His first league game? But of course: against D.C. United Wednesday at Giants Stadium.
"I love the fans there and they like me. I know a lot of people there and three years is a long time, but this is my team now," Kovalenko said. "When I'm on the field, I'm different, I want to win. Yeah, they're my friends -- Jaime [Moreno] and Alecko [Eskandarian] -- I have a lot of respect for the guys and they're a good team but it doesn't matter now. I want to win and help this team now."
Kovalenko spent three years in D.C. after four years in Chicago. He left for FC Metalurh Zaporizhya to be closer to his family, but he said a big reason for returning to the league is the opportunity to play for Arena.
"He is the best coach and everywhere he coached, they won: college, MLS, national team," Kovalenko said. "Here I know we're going to make a good team and I'm just happy to be part of this group. I'm just coming here and trying to fit in and help them."
Kovalenko has forged a reputation as one of the toughest midfielders in MLS, having accumulated 37 yellow cards and five red cards in seven seasons. But his scoring prowess -- 34 goals and 34 assists -- goes largely unnoticed. It wasn't the case in college where he won a national championship at Indiana University.
"In college it was totally different. I wanted to score goals, I wanted to go forward, I didn't want to play defense," he said. "Coming out of college, you have to play both ways and I was not very good at all. I'm still not great but I try to do my best and be ready to do both, defense and offense. My game starts from defense, if I do well I get into plays -- yeah, sometimes I get into fights, cards, but it goes into offense, trying to get better, get more comfortable."
Kovalenko is primarily a left-sided player, but with Danny O'Rourke (red card) and Seth Stammler (yellow card accumulation) suspended for Wednesday's game, Arena could push the feisty 28-year-old into O'Rourke's spot as the defensive midfielder.
"I know a lot of guys from the team," Kovalenko said. "I know Amado [Guevara] competed against me when I was in D.C., I chased him around. It's good to be here and I just want to win some games. That's what I want to do, fit in with the team and help them as much as I can, wherever Bruce puts me."
Arena isn't fazed that his first game back in the league is against a team he coached to two MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup title.
"I didn't really care, to be honest with you," Arena said. "I knew that we'd play D.C. United sometime. I don't think it matters, I don't really think it's that big an issue. Everyone in the league has to play them."
But Arena's arrival, along with former D.C. players and current Red Bulls assistants John Harkes and Richie Williams, who all have homes in northern Virginia, and especially the acquisition of Kovalenko bring a new dynamic to one of the league's most fierce rivalries, one that has been lopsided of late.
"I think they know D.C. pretty well and so do we," Red Bulls defender Carlos Mendes said. "It will be fun. Obviously D.C.'s one of the best teams in the league, playing well so it's a big challenge for us."
With a 13-2-6 record, D.C. United's astounding 45 points is top of the MLS table. With a multi-pronged attack led by Moreno, Eskandarian, Freddy Adu and Christian Gomez, D.C. has scored a league-best 38 goals while giving up just 19, also tops in MLS. They are 1-1-1 in their last three league games, but since the All-Star break, D.C. has played Real Madrid to a 1-1 tie in Seattle.
"They're the best team in the league," Arena said. "They've been good defensively and they've probably scored the most goals. Obviously their attacking play of Gomez and Moreno and Eskandarian are good, Adu's played well. We have to do a much better job defensively Wednesday than we did against Barcelona."
The Red Bulls gave up three unanswered goals in a 4-1 loss to Barcelona Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 79,002 at Giants Stadium. While the D.C. attack isn't quite in the same league as the likes of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Eidur Gudjohnsen, the chance to play arguably the best club team in the world was a good experience for the Red Bulls.
"It was a real test for our players on the defensive side of the ball, playing against so many good attacking players," Arena said. "They can learn from their mistakes."
Dylan Butler is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.