With the season ticking away and each match becoming ever more crucial in the dogpile that is the Eastern Conference in MLS, D.C. United faces yet another severe test at New England on Saturday.
"We've got to get three points," said midfield mainstay Dema Kovalenko. "It's a six-point swing, especially with them, they're in our division. It's a very big game for us. I mean, every game is big right now with eight games left, but this one especially."
D.C. is especially motivated to beat the Revolution after their last meeting. On Aug. 14, the Revs hit for an 85th-minute equalizer to steal a 2-2 draw at RFK Stadium, a match United feels they let slip away.
"We should have won that game," said Kovalenko, "but I'm sure they feel the same way. They could've won too, at the last minute.
"We've had three or four games this year when we didn't play well. We didn't show up -- it happens. Now it's too late for that, especially with the Eastern Conference so close. Every point counts." The United locker room is taking on a playoff-type atmosphere, as new arrivals and recent returnees from injury challenge incumbents for playing time, all aware of the high stakes involved.
Seven of D.C.'s remaining eight matches pit the Black-and-Red against conference rivals, and with only nine points separating the first-place MetroStars from cellar dwellers Chicago, there is no telling how the final standings will play out.
"Any team can get in the playoffs now," said Kovalenko. "Even (the MetroStars), a couple weeks ago they were 12 points ahead and everybody said they'll win the division, but now they're (only) two points from Columbus.
"So anything can happen, and every guy in the locker room knows that every game is important. Every chance in the game you have, you have to score. It puts a little bit of pressure on."
The Ukrainian-born All-Star has featured in almost every match this season and leads United with eight assists, but with new arrivals Christian Gomez and Tim Lawson in midfield, even he can no longer take a starting spot for granted. But Kovalenko welcomes the competition.
"It's good, it's very good," he said. "It's one of the best things that could happen to the team. Anybody can play -- it puts pressure on myself, and Benny (Olsen), and the guys who've been playing all the time, the starters. Like Peter said, 'It's never there for you, you can lose it just like that.'"
Nonetheless, Kovalenko is one of the veterans that United head coach Peter Nowak -- his former teammate in Chicago -- is counting on to set the playoff pace.
"The guys who've been in the league three, four, five years have to show the way, have to step up and show leadership. A lot of guys have been there, and they know what it takes to get to the playoffs, and to succeed in the playoffs too," said Kovalenko.
Nowak has relied heavily upon the fiery midfielder in his first season of coaching, but their relationship has had to evolve from their days together with the Fire.
"We're still friends, but we have a different outlook now. He's my coach, he's my boss," said Kovalenko. "Sometimes I want to tell him things that I don't like, that I would tell him when I played with him. But I can't do that now. He's in charge, he's the boss; I have to do whatever he says. But I can always be comfortable talking to him, because I've known him so long."
Having won a collegiate national championship at Indiana University and reached the 2000 MLS Cup with the Fire, Kovalenko has experienced success throughout his career. Despite this year's ups and downs, he still has high expectations for the Black-and-Red.
"We're as good as any team in this league," he said. "We can play with any team, any day, but sometimes we just struggle to show consistency -- which team will show up that day?
"If we put in the fight and effort, we're going to be in every game, and have a very good chance to win. We've got eight games left, and we know what we have to do: win some games."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.