It's been a week since D.C. United's Dema Kovalenko and Dallas's Ronnie O'Brien were involved in a scuffle near the start of their game at RFK Stadium, but the rancor between the midfielders has not subsided.

O'Brien, whose leg was broken on a Kovalenko tackle last year, said in yesterday's Dallas Morning News that Kovalenko had threatened to break his leg again during last weekend's match. In the first minute of United's 3-0 victory, Kovalenko was called for fouling O'Brien on the sideline, sparking a confrontation between the two players and a brief fracas among their teammates.

Kovalenko responded yesterday by saying, "He can say whatever he wants. People say things in the games. I don't even know what I said. I never said the things like this that he said. . . . What happened in the game is just normal play. That's how I play. I'm competitive. What do you want me to do? It's soccer, things happen like this. People say crazy things in a game -- 10 times worse. It's sports, you want to win, you want to compete."

United Coach Peter Nowak came to Kovalenko's defense.

"They overreact to find cheap excuses" for losing, Nowak said. "It's not fair to Dema. The whole mentality from when the game starts was to go after Dema and provoke him. We saw it this year when a couple teams on the bench would jump any time Dema would make any moves. The whole league is going to continue to do that. Of course, we're going to protect Dema from this kind of stuff."

Dallas players and coaches also said Kovalenko attempted to head-butt O'Brien during the scuffle, which the D.C. player denied. MLS officials investigated the incident and said no action will be taken.

In his comments to the Dallas newspaper, O'Brien said: "To be honest, you expect it from certain people. Lots of people, you might say you're surprised. They might have just snapped and said something in frustration. But not Dema. You expect it from him."

Kovalenko told The Post: "I play the game hard, I want to win. I don't change. Dema is not going to change. That's the way I am and I'm going to play this way, not to try to hurt anybody -- never! Never in my life did I try to go into a game and say, 'Man, I'm going to do something to this guy.' Because it's his career, you don't want to hurt anybody."

O'Brien is "a good player, I respect him as a player, and I just can't believe he would say things like this," Kovalenko continued. "I don't know what I said. In the heat of the game, you say crazy things. We talked [garbage] all game, back and forth, back and forth. It's part of the game."

Nowak, who was Kovalenko's teammate for four years in Chicago before retiring, said he thinks Kovalenko, 27, has matured over the years and has learned to better control his emotions.

"He got smarter and he knows how to resolve this kind of situation," Nowak said. "We watched the [video] and it was actually O'Brien who put his fingers on Dema, and Dema walked away from that. This is unacceptable when the other teams and other players start to provoke Dema, knowing maybe he is going to lose his temper and they're going to benefit from it."

Kovalenko has been assessed one red card this year (in the season opener against San Jose) and has five yellow cards, tied for third on the team. He is second on the club in assists with eight and third in points with 12.

United Notes: With a victory tonight over Chicago, D.C. would have its first two-game league winning streak of the season. . . . The Fire is 1-6-5 on the road, its only victory coming in Washington in late April. . . . United is 6-2-4 at home and has a seven-game unbeaten streak (4-0-3) at RFK. . . . Midfielder Earnie Stewart has recovered from a hamstring injury that sidelined him last week, but it's unclear whether he'll regain his starting job.

Dallas's Ronnie O'Brien (not shown) reportedly said United's Dema Kovalenko, middle, threatened to break his leg.