TSG writer Jay Bell with another award winner.
Major League Soccer has lost a golden generation of veterans to retirement in the last six months. Even in its most decorated class yet, Dema Kovalenko is not overshadowed.
This retirement class is defined by individual greatness and long time dedication to a fledgling league: Jaime Moreno, Clint Mathis, Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and Brian McBride will be remembered as some of the best players in MLS history. Players like John Wolyniec, Mike Petke, C.J. Brown, and Chris Klein were some of the league’s great veteran leaders. Alecko Eskandarian and Zac Herold’s careers were ended far too prematurely. Eddie Lewis retired as one of the more distinguished national team players in recent memory.
Kovalenko still stands out. He will be remembered for a brash playing style and a knack for winning.
As MLS improves its stat-keeping (recently signing a deal with OPTA) over time, we will truly learn the significance of this retiring class. As much as the work is appreciated, hopefully Climbing the Ladder will not be be the #1 place for historical MLS statistics. When we learn the true numbers, Kovalenko’s career will stand out that much more. He never missed the playoffs in 12 seasons and won plenty of silverware.
Kovalenko does not try to hide his emotions. That has always been his personality. He is very appreciative of everyone and everything he encountered during his playing career. He does not want to be remembered for a few accidents that happened when he may have been playing too hard. Dema wants to be remembered for his successes, his team-first attitude and a powerful will to win.
TSG: What all went into your decision to retire?
Dema Kovalenko (DK): A few things. I missed a lot of games the last few years. I’m not sure exactly how many games, but I know last year I only played nine games. The year before I played maybe half, if that. Even the year before that when I was with Salt Lake, I think 12 or 14 games or something like that.
So, its been frustrating the last few years. The frustrating part was I take care of myself. I don’t drink, I don’t go out, I don’t party, I don’t smoke.
I’m just saying, it’s frustrating.
I’ve always been the guy who tries to be professional and take care of my body. I don’t know. I came back from an injury and I had a freak injury last year.
I was stretching before the game; just stretching. I tore, well its not tore all the way, but I kind of tore my hamstring. It was crazy. It was crazy. I came back. I missed four months. I came back, played a few games and did alright. I pulled my groin, I was out for two or three weeks again and its just been frustrating. Health is the number one issue, to be honest.
This other thing is I didn’t get picked up, they didn’t pick up my option, which is understandable. Its understandable. I missed a lot of games. I think the biggest reason why is they want to get younger, just wanted to get younger. The league is getting younger. Its a normal thing, its a normal process, but its frustrating a little bit because, to be honest with you, if I say I was ready to stop I would lie to you. I was not ready to stop. I wanted to play another year or two. I had another year on my contract left. It would have been over sometime. I didn’t want it to be over this year, but unfortunately that’s what it is. Its soccer. That is the name of the game. You got to move on. Life goes on.
Do I miss it? Of course I will miss it. Its all I know how to do. Its all I’ve been doing since I was six. Its not an easy transition to do something else, but its part of it. Its life. A reason I think is the money they want to give me. They offered, Lyle told me, it was $75,000, $80,000. Maybe that is why nobody picked me up. I told Bruce, I said I’m not going to take a pay cut. I’m not going to take a pay cut. I’ve been in the league for a long time; so maybe that is the reason. I didn’t want to play for $85,000.
Don’t get me wrong, that is a lot of money. I’m not being greedy. I’m just saying that when you make a certain amount of money and then you go down to that much, its a big pay cut. I took pay cuts to come to Salt Lake. When I went from Salt Lake I took a pay cut. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to do that. So that was a reason too.
TSG: Had you been contemplating retirement for a while? Did you think about it each season?
DK: Not at all. Not at all, man. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve been really, really frustrated with injuries. To be honest, did I think about it? Yeah. I thought about it, because when you play nine games one year and you come back, its very difficult. When you get hurt and miss so much time, you come back and try to get back your fitness, your level. I’m not 20 years old anymore, 21 or 22. I will be 34 this summer. It was difficult. That is the point. Its a weird feeling right now. When you get up every day for so long and you know what you do and your schedule and you know what is going on. Now you don’t. Its like a, I don’t know how you say, a wake up call. Life goes on, brother. What are you going to do?
TSG: What do you have going on right now?
DK: Nothing, man. I moved to LA. I moved all of my stuff to LA. I’m going to live in LA. It happened so fast. I’m not doing anything right now, really. I don’t know what I want to do yet. I’ve been thinking a little bit. I think I’ll go see my family for a little bit; spend time with my family. I have been away from them for so long. Then, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to do something with soccer or maybe get away from it. I’m not sure. I’ve been in soccer for a long time, almost 30 years, since I was six years old. Maybe it is time to take a little break. I don’t know. I’m not sure yet.
TSG: Lets go back to whenever you first came into the league. I know you scored a lot more goals and had a lot more assists back then. What do you think was your playing style back then?
DK: I was a more offensive player. I mean, coming from college. I scored almost every game in college. For Indiana, I was a forward there. Coming here, I played some games forward, but not many. I was a midfielder, but a more attacking midfielder. When I was getting older, I started playing more defensively. I don’t know. I was always fit. I can run forever. I’m not sure, but I wasn’t scoring as many goals or getting as many assists. I play more defensive. Its more fun to play more offensive; score goals and get assists. Always in the back. People forget about you a little bit. Maybe that didn’t help me, and not scoring.
Its been good for me. I’m not complaining. I don’t regret anything. Its been good. I’m happy.
TSG: You said you started to play more defensive over your career. Was that a conscious decision that you made or were there external factors?
DK: Coaches, man. Coaches really made it for me. I always wanted to be an offensive player and I always wanted to score. Even when I came into the league, I scored 10 goals in a year. One year I had like 13 goals or something like that. Sometimes you have to adjust. A lot of players play up top in college, went to the pros and played defense. Its whatever the team needs. Whatever the coach thinks you’ll help the team the most, its what it is. You do not choose anymore when you get to this level. You’ve got to be a team player. I think I’ve always been that way. I always sacrifice for the team. Sometimes its not good because in this league if you don’t score goals or get assists, nobody is talking about you really. It seems that way.
But I know what I did and I know the guys that I played with. Like I said, I don’t regret anything I did. I thank god for an opportunity. I think many, many coaches for the opportunity. I’m thankful. I’m thankful for everything. I’m thankful for the league for giving me this opportunity. Its been good.
TSG: Do you think that the evolution of the league necessitated your switch from offense to defense at all?
DK: What do you mean by that? I don’t understand.
TSG: A lot of people believe that back in the early years of the league it was a less technical league and maybe a slower pace. They think now the league has sped up and a lot of the players have more skill.
DK: It is. Yeah, maybe. Maybe that is the reason. Its hard to say. You look at teams in the past and, man, they are some great teams. DC United, they were an unbelievable team. Chicago had a great team; New England; there is a lot of great teams. LA had unbelievable teams back in the day. I don’t know. Are you trying to say that the league got better or that it got stronger and faster?
TSG: I think a little of both.
DK: I’m not sure, man. I don’t know. Players back then were a lot better. A lot of better players. I agree with you in the point that the league got a lot faster and more physical. For sure, there’s no question. But is it a better level? I don’t know. You look at teams in the past. I’ve been in the league for 12 years. I know, even in training. There’s some players, unbelievable. 90% of the time, its harder to play in training, back in the day, than in games. Guys respect me so much and they hold you accountable. They yell at you. Oh, its crazy.
We had teams in the past, Chicago teams that I played on, it was unbelievable. We didn’t have one practice without a fight. Then when you get into a game, it is so much easier to play. I don’t know. Its an interesting question. I don’t think so. It is harder to play in the league now because its more physical and a lot faster. But are the players better now than back in the day? i don’t think so.
Tell me, do you have a Marco Etcheverry right now in the league? Do you have a Piotr Nowak right now? Do we have a Jaime Moreno right now? We don’t. I don’t think its better. Its just my opinion, man. So it doesn’t matter. Its what I think. Someone else may think differently.
TSG: Over the last few years of your career, you gained a reputation of being a dirty player or a rough player. How do you feel about that?
DK: I’ve always said, I’ll say it again and I’m always going to say I never stepped on the field and tried to hurt someone intentionally because that is just stupid. Plain stupid. Its a professional sport. Things happen in soccer. Unfortunately it has happened to me twice; crazy, the same team. Its unbelievable. Listen, I always said I will never change. I play the same way: hard, I give 100%, 120% every game, I hate losing. I can’t stand losing, man. I don’t know. Its the worst. Losing is the worst to me. I don’t care. I hate losing. Do I sometimes take it too far? Yes, I do. Maybe too much, but I don’t change. I want to win. I give a 100% and I play hard and I want to win.
Guys that play with me, they know me. They know what kind of person I am and what kind of player I am. Thats all that matters. Guys that never play with me and just talk and say this guy will do anything, I’ll be honest, I don’t give a shit. I don’t care. Fans can say it. I don’t give a shit what they say. I know who I am, I know what I did, I know how I play; one thing i can say, I played hard. Whatever people say about me, does not bother me, man. Doesn’t bother me at all.
TSG: I think your will to win definitely shows up. Your teams never missed the MLS playoffs during your career.
DK: I agree. That’s something. I’ve been in a lot of teams. Some teams that I came into, nobody would give us a chance to make the playoffs. I came when they were the worst team. I’m not saying I made the whole team better, but its something. 12 years, I don’t know how many players did that. I don’t know. Did any other players make the playoffs every year?
TSG: Right now it is hard to tell. It is hard to keep up with those statistics right now.
DK: Yeah, I don’t know, but its good. It’s good. It’s not bad.
TSG: Same thing, it is hard to keep up with these statistics, but I bet there are not very many players right now that have won an NCAA Championship, the US Open Cup, the Supporters Shield, Eastern Conference Championship, Western Conference Championship, and the MLS Cup. You’ve basically won every trophy in American soccer.
DK: That’s great. Its nice. I love winning. I like to win. Its what its all about. Sports is all about winning. At the end of the day, that’s what counts. Sometimes its not the best soccer, sometimes its not the best game, its ugly. Fans don’t like it, but when you get into the locker room its a team and the feeling you have winning. Of course you want to play the world’s beautiful game, beautiful soccer and win, but it doesn’t usually work that way. A lot of times when you play terrible and win, people are happy, but sometimes you play unbelievable and you lose, there is a totally different atmosphere in the locker room. Guys are pissed off, coaches pissed off and fans are mad. Its all about winning at this level. Its not easy. Its fun, man. Its fun to win.
TSG: How do you feel about retiring with a group of really high profile MLS players? I don’t want to name ALL of them, but you’re retiring at the same time as Brian McBride, Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman, Clint Mathis, Eddie Lewis, Chris Klein, and maybe even Jaime Moreno.
DK: Its good. I’ve known Chris for a long time. I played with Chris in college. All of those guys you named had unbelievable careers. Thats all you can ask for. Chris played 13 years. Ralston played from the beginning, right? Its unbelievable, man. They all played great careers and I’m happy for that. Like I said, life goes on. They have other things, family, jobs. I wish he could play until he’s 50, but the body doesn’t let you. Its kind of difficult.
Its great to retire in their company. Its an honor.
TSG: Thanks, man. We always like to end our interviews on a lighter note. So I’d like to ask a couple more light-hearted questions. What was the favorite or some of the favorite memories and moments of your career?
DK: Winning, in 2004. Winning the MLS Cup. We had a great team. It was a great group of guys. I’ve been in a lot of good teams. I’ve been lucky too. I’ve been playing for very good teams. Chicago teams, DC where we won, LA, Utah and New York, all of them have been good. Its very, very hard to win. Its very difficult. With LA last year, we thought we were going to win. Playing good and home field advantage and everything, and we got kicked out.
Winning is probably the best, in 2004, because that is what you play for. You work hard in the pre-season and all year to get to the playoffs and to win. That is probably the best moment, winning the MLS Cup.
TSG: Who are some of the best players you ever played with?
DK: Oh man, Piotr Nowak when I came to Chicago; Jaime, Marco, Hristo Stoichkov. I’ve been lucky too. I’ve met some great guys, unbelievable players and I’ve been on great teams. So many good players. So many. I’m thankful for everything. Thanks to the guys who played with me and played against me.
TSG: Who would be the one player that you would least like to go into a challenge against?
DK: Man, I don’t know. I don’t have a player like that. I’ve never been scared of anything. Nobody, man, I don’t know. Let me think. You know who was tough? I can say that. He was a tough player. Joe Franchino. Remember Joe Franchino? He was tough, but I was not scared of him. I’m just saying, but he was a tough player. I don’t know, I never shied from a challenge, never hide from anything. If a train is coming, I’ll put my foot in there. Maybe that’s why I stopped: putting my feet into where I’m not supposed to.