Thug. Goon. Bum. Neanderthal.
Troll the Internet long enough and you’re bound to find any derogatory comment you like about Dema Kovalenko, easily the most polemic figure still playing in the 2010 MLS postseason.
The veteran LA Galaxy midfielder has spent 12 seasons in the league carving out an identity which forces those who follow him into two directly opposed camps: those who hate him, and those who know him.
The first group is the larger one, occupied most vocally by media members, opposing fans and anonymous online sucker-punchers who have loathed Kovalenko for more than a decade. He is a fearless midfielder, a crunching tackler and the guy veterans warn the rookies about during the week before the game.
[inline_node:317494]The second group is a fraternity of old-schoolers who have suited up alongside Kovalenko or coached him. They’re the ones who have seen the results of Kovalenko’s ruthless competitive streak as well as his natural talent, a combination that has made him the quintessential teammate you love to have and you hate to lose.
Kovalenko, for his part, finds a bit of comfort in both camps. He knows he’s openly loathed from the outside but quietly respected from within, and that’s simply the fate you’re handed when you play like he does.
But he’s not about to show a great deal of contrition for the way he plays, a style that has netted him six career ejections during the regular season and 14 career postseason yellow cards, more than any other player in league history.
He’s not about to change his ways now, more than a decade into a career that has him knocking on the door of another MLS title.
So pick a side now, because here’s what’s clear about Dema Kovalenko: He’s not going anywhere.
Competitive By Nature
Professional athletes are inherently competitive. Kovalenko’s competitive streak, however, borders on compulsion. Born in Kiev, Kovalenko’s competitive nature comes from his father, a former athlete who spent 12 years as a professional soccer referee in Ukraine. According to Kovalenko, the relationship was often marred by tears and frustration, the results of a father who mercilessly challenged his son at nearly every turn: soccer, basketball, anything.
“It made me angry,” Kovalenko said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t go home because he would make fun of me, or he told me I was no good. I cried, and I was angry. That’s where I get it from.”
That fire, however, eventually helped make Kovalenko one of the most sought-after prep soccer players in the country after he emigrated to the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., as a teenager. Though he was courted by a host of top-flight schools (Bruce Arena badly wanted Kovalenko to play for his Virginia Cavaliers before the coach bolted for D.C. United in 1996), he settled on head coach Jerry Yeagley and Indiana, where he teamed with fellow countrymen Yuri Lavrinenko and Aleksey Korol to form the “Ukraine Train” and win the 1998 NCAA title.
He landed in 1999 with the defending MLS champion Chicago Fire, where he was an instant fit into a club that already carried a wealth of European players and largely echoed the city’s affinity for hard-working, blue-collar players.
[inline_node:323134]During his rookie season, he earned a reputation on the team for a crazy but endearing personality and penchant for competition anywhere he could find it. He compulsively wagered with teammates over tasks no one figured he could do, like juggling a golf ball on his head 50 times or bouncing a 20-pound medicine ball on his head until he was nearly unable to walk in from the parking lot the next day.
“He’s doubled his salary every year by taking rookies’ money,” recalled Ben Olsen, a former teammate at D.C. United. “He wins. He wins at gambling, he wins at ping pong, he wins at everything.”
It was an extension of what he’d learned as a kid. Competition and earning money (“I like to get paid,” Kovalenko says) drove him then and continue to drive him now.
Kovalenko was aggressive and cocksure even as a rookie, backed by a decent-sized contract, a brand new Lexus parked in the lot and an unwavering belief that he was good enough to start on the best team in the league.
In the few minutes he earned as a rookie in coach Bob Bradley’s group, Kovalenko made lasting impressions.
“If he’s going in on a tackle, he’s not going in half. He’s going all the way,” former Fire teammate C.J. Brown said. “A 50-50 challenge is usually 75-25 for him.”
Kovalenko wound up spending four seasons in Chicago, winning a US Open Cup with the team in 2000 and earning All-Star nods in 2001 and 2002. But the first of two dark signature moments in his career perhaps overshadowed the accomplishments.
He went in on a tackle against Dallas Burn midfielder Brandon Pollard during the postseason that year that broke Pollard’s leg and effectively ended his career.
“It was just a freak accident,” Kovalenko said. “I was chasing him and I stepped on his foot. Honestly, if that happens 100 more times, it doesn’t end up like that. It was a weird. It wasn’t like I hit him or anything, I just stepped on his heel.
“It was crazy actually,” he added. “How many games had I watched around the world? I’d never seen anything like that.”
Battler Or Thug?
Kovalenko earned a wealth of friends and success in Chicago, but salary cap issues eventually forced him out before the 2003 season in a trade to D.C. United.
The critics who blasted Kovalenko for his rough play and the Pollard incident received even more fodder just four games into Kovalenko’s first season in DC. This time it was FC Dallas regular Ronnie O’Brien at the receiving end of a crunching tackle. O'Brien's tibia snapped and he was shelved him until October.
[inline_node:323135]Was it simply bad luck for Kovalenko, or history repeating itself for a player quietly becoming the dirtiest figure in the league? Even those around him at the time weren’t sure what to make of such a stigma that still plagues Kovalenko today.
“I’ve seen enough broken legs and ankles in my time to know that some are the result of bad tackles, and some are completely freaky,” Olsen said. “I don’t necessarily know if he’s gotten a bad rep in this league. He plays hard, let’s be honest. And teams don’t usually like playing against those guys.”
“He’s gone into some pretty bad tackles, and you can go back and inspect them and say, ‘Wow, that was a late tackle,’ or ‘That was a dirty tackle,” Brown said. “But if you sit down and talk with Dema, you would never come out of that conversation thinking he would hurt someone. He gets caught up in the heat of the game and he just goes in harder than anyone else.”
The critics were less cordial, and they’ve hung on for years.
Longtime Soccer America contributor and 2010 National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Paul Gardner, for example, recently put the veteran midfielder in his crosshairs in a Nov. 3 post that said the referees in the Western Conference semifinal series against Seattle went soft on Kovalenko, and ESPN’s commentators failed to call a spade a spade after all these years.
“How many more broken legs does it take before ‘a battler’ becomes ‘a thug,’ before ‘aggressive’ becomes ‘vicious?’” Gardner wrote. “For my part, I see no reason to wait for another tragedy. I’ve seen enough of Dema Kovalenko to feel perfectly comfortable in calling him a dirty player.”
Kovalenko has apologized repeatedly for both the Pollard and O’Brien incidents and tried his best to make peace with the episodes. Internally, he believes he has accomplished just that.
“It bothered me for a while,” he said. “It bothered me a lot. You don’t wish it to anybody, but it happened. People around the league know me and they know that’s not the kind of player I want to be.
“I go into tackles and I go hard, but there’s never an intention to hurt anyone,” he added. “It’s a cruel game sometimes, and things happen.”
Back On The Brink
But for all the vitriol sent Kovalenko’s way, he’s still standing. And those who know him best remain staunchly in his corner.
“If he’s not a part of your group, then you’re not gonna like this guy,” Galaxy assistant coach Dave Sarachan said. “But once you get him in your own locker room and you get to know him personally, you start to appreciate a kind of guy like Dema.”
Kovalenko’s been with the Galaxy since before the 2009 season, when Bruce Arena scooped him up after a short but critical year in Real Salt Lake, where RSL head coach Jason Kreis said Kovalenko’s competitive fire and experience played an “absolutely instrumental role in turning the culture around.”
[inline_node:323136]“To talk about what he does on the field is one thing, but to carry that over to saying he’s a bad person or that he has a bad character flaw, no chance,” Kreis said.
He’s appeared in a 24 regular-season matches while batting injuries over the last two seasons, but Kovalenko returned to the LA starting lineup for good in early September after injuries had limited to just four league matches this year.
He was quintessentially Kovalenko in the first leg of the semifinal series against Seattle, frustrating Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and bodying up on phenom Fredy Montero before being booked with another yellow card in the 64th minute and pulled. Coincidence or not, LA won, 1-0. He put in a similar performance in the second leg.
And he’ll play a vital role for the Galaxy in Sunday’s Western Conference Championship against visiting FC Dallas, with LA seeking a second straight berth in the MLS Cup and Kovalenko looking for his fourth career shot at an MLS crown.
The notion of Kovalenko's winning another title to further validate a controversial career is tough to stomach, at least for those who never had a taste for him in the first place.
But that’s never mattered much anyway to the man at the center of the fury.
“Whatever I have left, one year, two year, three years, I’m here only for one reason: to win games,” Kovalenko said. “Sometimes it’s not the best way, it’s not the prettiest way, not the right way, but you gotta get results. And that’s why I’m here.”