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Kovalenko focused as old friends become foes

This week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us -- Real Salt Lake's Dema Kovalenko has a sensitive side.

"I think I'm a softy," said Kovalenko, whose RSL side is preparing for Saturday's Western Conference final versus the New York Red Bulls. "Off the field, I'm a different person, and people say that to me. The way my parents raised me was to fight for everything, to go out there and be the best I can."

It probably isn't much of a stretch to say that if you mention the name Dema Kovalenko to MLS fans, you will get a wide range of responses. It turns out that there is no neutral with regards to this man -- you either love him or you love to hate him. Gritty, tough and feisty to a fault, Kovalenko is many things, but above all, he's a winner. He might have missed his calling; with his gritty, no-holds-barred play, Kovalenko might have been perfect for the Red Army.

He was an All-American in college at Indiana, winning the national championship with the Hoosiers in 1998, and the next year he joined the Chicago Fire, providing attacking options in the midfield. The Ukrainian-born player, who was brought up in the youth system of famed club Dynamo Kyiv, won a U.S. Open Cup with the Fire in 2000. Kovalenko's résumé includes stints at D.C. United and New York as well as time in Germany and then in the Ukraine. In the process, Kovalenko has turned himself into a defensive midfielder. He asks the question, "What good does it do to score three goals if you lose 4-3?" It's vintage Dema -- no matter the team, Kovalenko bleeds the colors.

"People that know me know that I won't score 20 goals in a season," he said. "But I will do everything for the team -- that is the number one thing for me."

Conference Finals
Saturday
New York at Real Salt Lake
9:30 p.m. ET

And he won't win any Miss Congeniality awards in MLS anytime soon. In 1999, Kovalenko broke the leg of Dallas Burn midfielder Brandon Pollard, ending his career. In 2002, a similar incident involving another Burn player, Ronnie O'Brien, further drew the ire of many MLS fans. Kovalenko says that he has made his peace with O'Brien, who recovered from the injury, and that he greatly respects O'Brien for his skill and ability. This hard-nosed reputation for grit and aggressive play sticks, and Kovalenko still hears it from Dallas' very vocal supporters when he is a visitor at Pizza Hut Park.

"You know what? I hope I'm never on that team," Kovalenko said. "I apologize for what happened. It's all OK."

Saturday night's Western Conference final against the Red Bulls features a familiar opponent for Kovalenko. The midfielder signed with the club in the summer of 2006 and was the first move of significance by then-head coach Bruce Arena. He made 35 appearances with New York before being traded in February of this year to Real Salt Lake. Beyond scoring twice for the Red Bulls, Kovalenko was a pivotal member of the midfield, winning balls and providing the team with much-needed leadership from a defensive midfield position. New York made the playoffs both years Kovalenko was with the team.

It doesn't stop him from having strong emotions about leaving the Red Bulls. Kovalenko says he never was told in person by New York's new coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, that he didn't figure into his plans. The midfielder says the trade was made while he was in Chicago on a visit. Kovalenko doesn't shy away from his stance.

"I said some things about him before. I don't like to say it [about him], but he's the head coach," Kovalenko said. "He came in and made some decisions. Do I like it? I hate it.

"He gave me no reason. I was in Chicago at the time. I guess my personality was too strong for him. He couldn't look me in the eye and tell me. He knows I'm crazy, that I'll tell him what I think."

Asked for his response to Kovalenko's criticism, Osorio responded with, "No comments whatsoever."

Osorio would diplomatically call Kovalenko a "good player" and that he is pleased to see his success with Real Salt Lake. Adding that he is "glad for him," Osorio cautioned that he can "only control and worry about my own players."

Saturday night won't be easy for Kovalenko. He has numerous friends on the New York roster, including Sinisa Ubiparipovic, who was his roommate last year. Ubiparipovic is a starter on this year's team and calls Kovalenko "intense" on the field, but "off the field, he's a nice guy. He's calm and easygoing -- great to talk to." His connections on the field won't change how Dema brings his lunch pail to the field.

"This Saturday, I have no relationships with New York," Kovalenko said. "Dave van den Bergh, Juan Pablo [Angel], Sinisa and Danny [Cepero] are friends -- all are great guys. But Saturday night, I have no friends."

But the place he is at now is home. Real Salt Lake is in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. With 10 wins, 10 losses and 10 ties, they finished third in the Western Conference en route to their best season ever. Kovalenko, despite some injuries, has been a vital cog in the midfield. While league MVP honors usually go to a player with stats much gaudier than his one goal and two assists, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more valuable to his team than Kovalenko. The hard-nosed spark plug of the midfield has spearheaded a rejuvenation in Utah.

"Night and day," said Real forward Clint Mathis when asked about the differences between this year's team and his previous RSL teams. Mathis was part of the expansion Real side in 2005. "I think there are too many to compare. Mainly the results are going our way now."

And in part, RSL fans can thank Kovalenko for that. He has formed a solid relationship with Kyle Beckerman in the midfield and has played controlled soccer. It might surprise many, but Kovalenko has not been ejected from a game all season long, earning seven yellow cards in his 22 appearances. He says that he was against the deal that sent him from New York to Salt Lake and didn't want to make the move, but during preseason training in Argentina, he realized that there was something special with this team. He tells a story about how he stood up and addressed the team while in Argentina, and told the guys that they won him over and he was proud to be their teammate. The feeling is mutual.

"Dema's one of those guys I want on all of my teams, wherever I go," said Mathis, who also played with Kovalenko on the Red Bulls in 2007. "He gives 100 percent everyday, and he is a great player. He is also the kind of guy you want in the locker room."

Locker room, yes -- family room, maybe not quite so much.

Kovalenko, not surprisingly, calls himself an "emotional person." He admits to being intense but he isn't afraid to mention that soft side, either. In fact, maybe the most polarizing man in MLS and certainly one of its most notorious ball-winners isn't ashamed to grab the Kleenex when need be.

"I cry," Kovalenko said. "After watching a movie, sometimes I cry."

That's news to his old roommate, Ubiparipovic.

"I guess he must have locked the door and done that in his bedroom," Ubiparipovic said with a laugh.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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