By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
With time running out in D.C. United's 3-1 victory over Columbus on Saturday night, Dema Kovalenko fidgeted at the scorer's table awaiting a stoppage in play to facilitate his first appearance of the season.
The problem, however, was that play wasn't stopping.
So when teammate Josh Gros ran by, "I told him, 'Hey, Josh, kick the ball out so I can get in!' " Kovalenko recalled yesterday.
An amused Gros wasn't able to grant the request, but shortly thereafter, the ball went out of play, allowing the eager Kovalenko to finally make his season debut after missing five MLS games as well as four Champions' Cup matches because of a broken foot.
"It was good for me to get a few minutes," Kovalenko said. "I was excited, the fans were excited and it was nice to be able to help the guys again."
Kovalenko, a Ukrainian-born midfielder in his seventh MLS season, didn't expect to be available until May 21 against Kansas City. But the bone on the outside of his right foot made steady improvement and he was able to rejoin United (2-2-2) for full training sessions in recent weeks.
He could end up making another late-game appearance this Saturday against first-place New England (5-0-1) at Gillette Stadium. Regardless, he's planning to play in the reserve league match later in the day.
"I don't think Dema is ready for 90 minutes right now," Coach Peter Nowak said. "He's still coming back and it was nice to give him some minutes, but it's going to be another week to 10 days for him to get his fitness back. . . . He always competes, he always has his heart out there. I'm pretty happy with his progress."
Kovalenko, 27, had started almost every game in which he had appeared since becoming a regular for Chicago in 2000. Last year, in his second season with United, he finished second on the team in assists with 10 and evolved into a rambunctious left-side midfielder after spending most of his time in Washington as a defensive midfielder. His aggressive play helped United wins its fourth title in MLS's nine-year history.
During this past offseason, however, Kovalenko broke his foot while jogging in his native Kiev and underwent surgery upon his return to the United States.
Unrelated to the injury, he was also being mentioned in informal trade talks with, among others, Chicago and Salt Lake City, according to several sources around the league. A deal never materialized and United's coaching staff patiently awaited his return.
In his absence, English league veteran Steve Guppy took over on the left flank. Guppy is now sidelined with Achilles' tendon problems, prompting Nowak to move Gros from the right wing to the left.
With the team's ample depth in midfield, Kovalenko acknowledged it's going to be difficult to reclaim a starting job, whether it's on the left side or in a disruptive central role.
"It doesn't matter if I played last year or if I played for five years," Kovalenko said. "Any player who comes in, whether he's been hurt or is a new player, it's a challenge to prove yourself. You have to be better than the guys playing right now. I think it's good for everyone because there's always someone there to push the starters. Time will show what's going to happen. I'm just going to work hard like I always do and hopefully I'll get the time."
United Notes: Gros broke his right wrist for the second straight year last weekend, but isn't expected to miss any time. . . . Rookie Clyde Simms, who started the last two games in defensive midfield, is slowed by a hip flexor but should be available Saturday. He also has been tentatively selected for U.S. national team training camp prior to the England friendly May 28 in Chicago. . . . Freddy Adu was named MLS player of the week after his one-goal, two-assist performance Saturday.