Dema: “If A Train’s Coming, I’ll Put My Foot In There.”

TSG writer Jay Bell with another award winner.

Dema Kovalenko...

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.

Kova...the early years...(Is that....Albright?)

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.

A pensive moment: Dema Kovalenko

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.

There is probably a stack of these sitting in Dema's garage....


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.

A little Kove-esque from Nowak?

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.

12-for-12 man and 2004 MLS Cup champ, Dema Kovalenko....

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Crow on 2011/03/08 at 7:18 AM

    Nice interview. I feel like the Kovalenko of commenters. I got to be careful because Matthew will be quick to give me a yellow or red if I step out of line!


    • Posted by cosmosredux on 2011/03/08 at 7:40 AM

      TIme to get the Comment HOF going again. Ha! Excellent.


      • Posted by Crow on 2011/03/08 at 1:59 PM

        LOL- You know, I have to be honest- I’ve always dreamed of getting a comment into the TSG HOF, but I wasn’t aiming to do that with this comment. I was just taking a little bit of angst out, ha ha.


  2. Posted by Crow on 2011/03/08 at 7:18 AM

    BTW- Gold Cup groups announced at Noon ET!


  3. Posted by SamT on 2011/03/08 at 8:14 AM

    Combination of the interview and the Mathai photo is top class. Well done, TSG.


  4. Posted by dth on 2011/03/08 at 8:49 AM

    Man, some of those old DC United uniforms were sweet. Why can’t they go back to those? Nothing wrong with the current ones, of course, but there’s something distinctive about the three bars (and the visual allusion to the D.C. flag is nice.)


  5. Posted by Soccernst on 2011/03/08 at 9:00 AM

    Sounds like a man bouncing off the walls of retirement, and casting around for a way to understand it. Got to be tough. Best wishes DK that you’ll find your groove in a new adventure soon.


  6. Posted by Andy_4Lakes on 2011/03/08 at 9:13 AM

    When asked about the skill level of the league:

    DK: “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.”

    Interesting. First time I’ve ever seen this response when folks comment on the level of MLS in the past versus the present. I think this more than anything gives insight into mentality of the man.


    • I definitely have to disagree with Dema on that one. He seems like a veteran who is very proud of his best days and consciously or unconsciously prefers to think that his best years came against the best competition.

      Some of the league’s brightest stars were definitely within the first 5 years of its history. Etcheverry, Moreno, Valderrama, Preki, and Nowak are some of the best MLS players ever. That doesn’t mean that the other 10 players on the field were always as good as they are now. And in my opinion, they weren’t.

      I think the league has improved markedly just over the last 4 seasons, let alone a decade ago. Improved defensive organization and fullback play are two developments that make me believe the league has improved, as well as depth.


      • Posted by Andy_4Lakes on 2011/03/09 at 8:32 AM

        “I definitely have to disagree with Dema on that one. He seems like a veteran who is very proud of his best days and consciously or unconsciously prefers to think that his best years came against the best competition.”

        Yup, EXACTLY my point.


  7. Posted by Brian on 2011/03/08 at 6:26 PM

    Excellent interview. As Galaxy fan, I can definitely say, to quote the great SF of The Offside Rules, “When he played against your team you hated him and thought he was bastard. But once your team got a hold of him he was YOUR bastard.”


  8. Ive been a fan of Dema since he came into the league. Photo #3 is a hard photo to look at. You can feel the passion for the game, the desire to win in his eyes. This was a great interview and I hope Dema does not end it all here. I hope he finds an MLS team to help coach and teach upcoming players his love for the game. Dema, take some time off man. Youve earned it. Spaciba!


  9. […] The Shin Guardian’s fantastic interview with ex-MLS player Dema Kovalenko. Kovalenko, who scored 42 goals in 270 MLS games over his […]


  10. This interview is f*****g classic! Two points:

    First, we need an audio version, with Dema’s parts read by Dolph Lundgren, doing his Ivan Drago voice.

    Second, I can’t believe nobody commented on DK channelling his inner Rick James on this exchange:

    [blockquote]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[/blockquote]

    Reminds me of Rick James: “c’mon man, what am I gonna do? I’m gonna just all of a sudden just jump up and grind my feet into somebody’s couch like it’s, like it’s something to do? C’mon man, I’ve got a little more sense than that….yeah, I remember grindin’ my feet on Eddie’s couch.”


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