- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

After Hristo Stoitchkov recently broke the leg of a college freshman in a practice game, you might expect most players to take a wide berth of D.C. United's fiery Bulgarian.
Not so Dema Kovalenko. The intense Ukrainian midfielder ripped Stoitchkov's red bib clear off his back in a training session at RFK Stadium this week.
Like Stoitchkov, Kovalenko, 25, plays with his emotions on his sleeve, bringing vim, vigor and a "take no prisoners" attitude to United's exciting new lineup.
"I can't tell you how many fights we got into at Chicago," Kovalenko said of the world-renowned Stoitchkov. "Sometimes we didn't talk for months. But he's like my older brother, and I love him."
With the suspended Stoitchkov sitting out United's 7:30 p.m. home opener against the Chicago Fire tonight at RFK, Kovalenko will set out to prove a point against his former team.
Chicago unloaded several players in a preseason purge, and Kovalenko, the club's fourth all-time scorer with 22 goals and 20 assists in 90 games, was the first to get the boot.
"I want to show [the Fire] they made a mistake in letting me go," he said. "When I left, I said, 'I'll prove you were wrong.'"
Chicago is now coached by former United assistant Dave Sarachan, who traded Kovalenko and Stoitchkov, citing salary cap concerns.
Kovalenko didn't like the move. After four seasons, he left many friends and a home behind in the Chicago area. Now he has settled in with United, sharing an apartment in Virginia with goalie Nick Rimando. And he has invited 10 people family and friends from the New York area for tonight's game.
After a scoreless tie in a preseason game against the Fire, Kovalenko is determined to help earn three points for his new club.
"I will do my best to play and play feisty," Kovalenko said. "If I get a card, I get a card. But we've got to win this game. This is my new home, and I will do whatever it takes to win."
At 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, Kovalenko is not a big player, but he's strong, hard-working and fearless. Sometimes he's too aggressive, too wound up; he once broke former Dallas defender Brandon Pollard's leg with a tackle from behind. But Kovalenko is not a hack. He may hustle nonstop like former United midfielder Richie Williams, but Kovalenko also has speed, style, offensive prowess and deadly finishing skills.
"He wants to win so bad that it borders on the insane," United defender Ryan Nelsen said.
Some consider the two-time Major League Soccer All-Star a future national team player if he ever trades his green card for citizenship papers.
While listed as a forward for Chicago, Kovalenko will be called on to play a more defensive role in the United midfield because of injuries to key defenders Milton Reyes and Galin Ivanov.
"We want him to be more of an offensive threat we don't want to rein him too much," United coach Ray Hudson said. "[However,] under these conditions, being a little depleted at the back, Dema has to be a little conservative in his role. He's got to be that point of the diamond in front of the back three."
Nonetheless, Kovalenko can't wait to move forward.
"Hopefully, when the guys get healthy, I can play closer to [playmaker] Marco [Etcheverry] and closer to goal," he said.
A native of Kiev, Kovalenko came to America at 15 to live with a family in Rochester, N.Y. He went on to help lead Indiana University to the NCAA title in 1998 and was acquired by the Fire from Dallas in a draft day trade the following year.
In tonight's game he will have his hands full dealing with Chicago's speedy striker, Andy Williams, and 17-year-old midfielder Craig Capano.
Meanwhile, Hudson looks ready to give Salvadoran forward Eliseo Quintanilla his first start of the season alongside Santino Quaranta on United's forward line.
"Quintanilla has impressed me more than anybody over the last few weeks," Hudson said. "I've got to give the kid his due."

Game notes Returning to RFK with the Fire is forward Justin Mapp, 18, who was let go by United last season. Mapp saw more minutes (34) in Sunday's 1-1 tie with the visiting New England Revolution than he did in all of 2002 with United (28). … American national team star Chris Armas will get to play his second MLS game since a serious knee injury last year cost him a place at the 2002 World Cup.


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