During warmups at a tribute match for legendary Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoitchkov on Saturday in Barcelona, D.C. United's Dema Kovalenko stood inside Nou Camp Stadium and absorbed everything around him -- the famous players, coaches and dignitaries who had come to honor Stoitchkov, the towering grandstands at one of world soccer's fabled venues, the energetic fans dressed in Barcelona's claret and blue.
"I just stood there and didn't do anything," said Kovalenko, who was back at United practice at the RFK Stadium auxiliary field yesterday. "I just stood in the middle and looked around. It was unbelievable."
Kovalenko, a Ukrainian-born midfielder, was the only MLS player to participate in the exhibition celebrating the career of Stoitchkov, a former Barcelona star who finished his career with United last year. United President Kevin Payne and club technical director Dave Kasper also accepted invitations, but D.C. Coach Peter Nowak, Stoitchkov's teammate with the Chicago Fire for three years, had to decline.
Kovalenko played about 25 minutes on the right side of the midfield for an all-star squad, which also included several of Stoitchkov's former teammates from Italy and Bulgaria, against a team of former Barcelona players. Stoitchkov scored twice in Barcelona's 2-1 victory.
Among the dignitaries in the crowd of 31,243 were Bulgaria President Georgi Parvanov and Spanish tenor Jose Carreras, who sang "Nessun Dorma" before the game.
The Barcelona squad was coached by famed Dutchman Johan Cruyff, while Englishman Bobby Robson and former Bulgarian coach Dimitar Penev guided the all-stars.
Kovalenko paid for his parents to fly to Barcelona from Kiev.
Late that night, he learned from Payne and Kasper that United had won its game at New England, 1-0, to break a two-game losing streak.
"Peter said I should've stayed [in Spain] a few more days," Kovalenko said with a smile.
U.S. Prepares for Friendly
United midfielders Earnie Stewart and Bobby Convey remained in Massachusetts after Saturday's game in order to join the U.S. national team for tonight's friendly against Honduras at Gillette Stadium. It's the final U.S. tuneup before the World Cup qualifying opener June 13 against Grenada in Columbus, Ohio. . . .
Defender Bryan Namoff (abdominal strain) and forward Alecko Eskandarian (hamstring) didn't practice yesterday.
Leading scorer Jaime Moreno, who missed Saturday's match at New England with a quadriceps injury, worked out on the side and appears questionable for this weekend's game at Chicago. . . .
Former United captain Marco Etcheverry, who recently returned to the area after playing for Bolivar in his native Bolivia this spring, watched practice yesterday. Etcheverry will represent Bolivia in a seniors tournament in Dallas this week, but otherwise, he said his playing career is over and he's looking forward to working for the Bolivian soccer federation.
United officials are planning to honor Etcheverry at a game late this season. . . .
Former United defender-midfielder Tony Sanneh, a U.S. national team standout at the 2002 World Cup, is considering a move back to MLS after five seasons in Germany.
"He has two offers in Germany, but is very interested in coming back to the States," said his agent, Rod Moskowitz. "We have opened up a dialogue with MLS and have preliminary interest."
If he were to sign with MLS, Columbus and Dallas would appear to have the best chance of acquiring him because they are apparently owed allocations from the league.
Freddy Adu can no longer be known as United's 14-year-old prodigy. Today is Adu's 15th birthday.
His mother Emilia said she's planning to take Freddy, family and friends to a big dinner tonight near their Potomac home.