Dema Kovalenko realized a life-long dream by becoming a pro soccer player in 1999.

This story originally was posted in on May 24, 2007

Second of a three-part series

By Michael Lewis

Some players will say it’s an important win or being the part of a championship side.

Others will say it was the time they scored a fabulous goal or goals in bunches.

Then there’s Red Bulls midfielder Dema Kovalenko. His most memorable moment in soccer? When he signed a professional contract as a Project 40 player prior to the 1999 season.

“It doesn’t matter how much it was,” he said of the $25,000 he earned the first year. “It was nothing. Just signing to really being asked to come out of college and sign a contract with a professional league, I can never forget that. I still have the contract.”

According to the MLS players union, Kovalenko will earn $197,375 in 2007.

Signing a professional contract was a culmination of a dream of a five-year-old boy growing up in Kiev.

“I knew I wanted to play since I was a little guy,” he said. “I told my father that, ‘Hey, I’m going to play soccer when I grow up.’ My dad used to tell this story to everybody: There are millions of players, millions, especially in Europe, they want to be professional. They want to make their living by playing. I told my daddy that wanted to be one of those people. At the time I didn’t know if I was going to be in the United States or who knows where. It just happened that way. I guess I am fortunate and lucky to be doing what I wanted to do since I was a little guy.”

Kovalenko was allocated by the league to the Dallas Burn. However, he wanted to play for Bob Bradley and the Chicago Fire. He was dealt to Chicago for the fourth and 12th overall picks in the 1999 college draft (midfielders Lazo Alavanja and Paul Broome, respectively).

Joining the Fire was one thing. Playing was another for one of the best MLS teams of those years.

“Bob really gave me a chance and I’ll never forget that,” Kovalenko said. “We had a lot of arguments with him. A lot. You can ask him that. He will tell you that. I was not happy. I was fighting every day. I was arguing. I was a pain in the ass in the locker room. Just because I wanted to play.

“My agent at the time said to me, ‘You shouldn’t go to Chicago because they are a great team. They just won a championship.’ I said, ‘No, no I want to go there because I want to play there. I want to prove to myself that I am good enough to play there.’ . . . I’ve always been like that through my life. I look for challenges. If I have a goal, I want to reach that goal. That’s what drives me all the time.”

After the 2001 season, Kovalenko was loaned to St. Pauli in Germany, playing against the likes of Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke. His Hamburg experience was hardly a bed of roses.

“What hurt me a little bit — and I’m not trying to find excuses — was my attitude when I went there,” Kovalenko said. “I got into a fight with the captain of the team. Arguments and stuff like that. I guess I didn’t know how to handle myself when I was there. I regret that, but it happened. . . . I wanted to stay there. The situation was very difficult.

“Germany is a very difficult place to live. It is so true. To be a good player, it’s not everything. You’ve got to be in a good environment. You’re got to have good teammates. You have to live everyday life and enjoy life. You can’t be just like a robot, train and this and that, that’s what it is. It’s very difficult. Training was great. If you’re not happy every day, you come home and you’re miserable every day. It is hard to continue this way.”

Like it or not, the 5-8, 160-lb. Kovalenko will be remembered by many fans for two Burn players he injured. He broke the leg of defender Brandon Pollard with a dangerous tackle in 1999 and then of midfielder Ronnie O’Brien in 2003. Kovalenko said it wasn’t an accident.

“People who know me, I’m not like that,” he said. “I’m different when I’m playing and I’m different when I’m not playing. I’m a very competitive person. What it comes down to is that I want to win games.

“I don’t really want to hurt anybody intentionally. It’s soccer and things happen. You’re just sorry and you go on.”

Kovalenko realized that some fans might have already made up their minds about him.

“You always see people with different opinions,” he said last year after joining the team. “It’s OK, I understand that. I’m not mad about that. I’ve always said that I’m not going to change. I’m always coming to compete. I’m going to do everything it takes to win. That’s how I am.”

When asked about Kovalenko’s reputation in light of those two incidents, Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena replied: “He’s a good player. I know he’s made some mistakes in his day. Haven’t we all?”

Kovalenko eventually was traded to D.C. United, reportedly for salary cap reasons. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I met a lot of nice people there. My heart was there. I still have friends there. . . . After two, three years it’s difficult to leave places because you’ve got to start all over again. But that’s life. That’s what you have to deal with.”

He helped United to the 2004 MLS Cup crown, although he was red-carded in the 3-2 championship game win over Chicago (he denied a goal-scoring opportunity with a handball). But Kovalenko experienced problems with coach Peter Nowak, a former Fire teammate who currently is an assistant under Bradley.

“We had problems,” Kovalenko said last year before an MLS playoff game with United. “We didn’t get along when I came to the team. He’s very competitive. He will do whatever it takes to win. When he coached me in D.C., we didn’t get along, we didn’t get along very well. I always respect him as a player. He’s a great player. Otherwise, I don’t want to have anything to do with that guy.”

He left United for a chance to play in with He signed a one year contract with FC Metalurh Zaporizhzhya in his native Ukraine, but returned to the states last August as D.C. dealt Kovalenko and Shawn Kuykendall to the Red Bulls for a partial allocation.

More than 10 years later, Kovalenko received an opportunity to finally play for Arena, who recruited the midfielder to play for the University of Virginia in the mid-1990’s.

“What I love about the guy is that he’s always straight with you,” Kovalenko said. “He always tells it how it is. He’s a funny guy and jokes around. When it comes to game day and sometimes at some points in training, when you look at the man, he’s the man. There is time for fun . . . and there is time to work and get results. If you’re a player you have to understand that.”

Arena has liked what he has seen from Kovalenko.

“He’s certainly a competitive player,” he said. “He keeps himself very fit. He makes little plays in the game that go unnoticed by most observers and fans and other people but don’t go unnoticed by his teammates. It’s about making the little plays that make a team successful over 90 minutes.

“He trains hard. He’s a good professional. He’s a good teammate and he’s a good player. I don’t know how much more you can say about him. He’s one of those unsung heroes. He’s not a guy about scoring a lot of goals or making plays or doing something spectacular to catch people’s eyes. He’s a real solid player for 90 minutes.”