During the nearly 15 months in which he did not score a goal, D.C. United midfielder Dema Kovalenko endured one of the most challenging stretches of his career, battling an injury and trade rumors.
But with one goal in each of United's past three games, Kovalenko has burst out of his slump and reemerged as one of the key players on MLS's hottest team.
"It was a real difficult season from the beginning," Kovalenko said. "[This stretch] is good for me, it's good for my confidence. But I know what I can do. What I'm happy about is that we're winning games."
United (11-6-5) has won four straight games and is unbeaten in its last six heading into Saturday night's game against Los Angeles. D.C. is in third place in the Eastern Conference with 38 points, four behind first-place New England and one behind Chicago.
With increasing contributions from players like Kovalenko, forward Jamil Walker, who scored his first goal of the season last week, and rookie defender Bobby Boswell, United has overcome the absence of forward Alecko Eskandarian (concussion) and midfielder Freddy Adu (knee) to keep on winning.
"That's what makes the team good," Kovalenko said. "We've got five, six, seven guys who can score at any given time, a lot of guys who can step up."
United has won its last three games with relative ease -- a 3-2 win over Chicago, which was a rout until the Fire scored two late goals, and consecutive 3-0 victories over the MetroStars and Chivas USA. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando has not allowed a goal at home in 280 minutes, while the offense has been persistent in its attack, scoring in spurts to leave its opponents out of reach.
A year ago, Kovalenko finished with 10 assists, second on the team, and his aggressive play was an important part of United's MLS Cup championship. But during the offseason, Kovalenko broke his foot while jogging in his native Kiev, Ukraine, and missed United's first five MLS games.
Kovalenko said that he felt good upon his return, which included three games in reserve before rejoining the starting lineup. But getting back into good game shape took longer.
"When I had surgery, I didn't think it was going to take that long to heal," Kovalenko said. "It was frustrating to watch [from the sideline]. Finally when I did get back, I was off. My game fitness was not there -- you can be fit, but it's different than game fitness."
In the last few weeks Kovalenko, who will turn 28 next week, has felt like himself on the field. He has been a catalyst on offense, and, in the win over Chicago on Aug. 6, he scored his first goal in an MLS game since May 8, 2004. In the win over Chivas last Saturday, Kovalenko had one score and one assist with a perfect pass.
"We know Dema's potential, how important he was last year," Coach Peter Nowak said. "Dema's a great example for all those youngsters [on the roster]. If you put everything you have on the field, sooner or later you're going to get results."