Three for Thursday: Toughest midfielders in MLS

With Kovalenko reportedly retiring, who takes his title?

After more than a decade spent carving his niche as one of the league’s most fearsome bruisers and perhaps its fiercest competitor, Dema Kovalenko is apparently calling it a career.

Kovalenko, 33, told the Russian newspaper Gazeta earlier this week that nagging injuries and a breakup with the LA Galaxy have effectively ended his time in MLS, and that he wants to treat his health issues abroad, perhaps in his native Ukraine.

“I feel that my body can no longer withstand the load,” Kovalenko said. “Why kill yourself and risk your health? … It is better to quit and look for a different occupation.”

Maybe some wide-eyed rookies just let out a sigh of relief, but the tough guys of MLS have to be quietly forcing out a tear (in private, of course). The league is losing arguably its most beloved villain and a proven winner (an MLS Cup with D.C. United and a US Open Cup with Chicago), leaving MLSsocccer.com to consider the three midfielders in MLS who most embody Kovalenko’s mix of grit and guile.

OSVALDO ALONSO

The most likely heir apparent to Kovalenko’s title, the 25-year-old Seattle Sounders midfielder already has a rugged reputation. He mixes talent with toughness (though he was whistled for only 28 fouls last year, less than league MVP David Ferreira) and, like Kovalenko, is a winner. He’s already racked up two US Open Cup titles in Seattle and should be a vital cog for the Sounders this year, especially after losing midfield ‘mate Nathan Sturgis during the offseason.

The Sounders will go as Alsono goes this season, a characteristic similar to Kovalenko’s tenures with Chicago and D.C. United in his early MLS days.

DANIEL HERNANDEZ

There’s no real mystery surrounding the reigning tough guy in Texas. FC Dallas rode Hernandez’s leadership and crunching physical play to a 19-game unbeaten streak and a first-ever MLS Cup appearance in 2010, giving the league veteran his fourth shot at a league title. He’s still never won one (a point that didn’t sit well with him in Toronto last year), but he’s much the same player he’s been for years: steady, strong and cerebral, with a penchant for chest-puffing that always makes him interesting to watch.

Need more proof? No natural midfielder committed more fouls last year than Hernandez.

SHALRIE JOSEPH

The standard-bearer over the last eight years for the quintessential physical midfielder, Joseph has enjoyed more individual success than anyone on this list. The New England Revolution mainstay is a four-time MLS Best XI selection and has started at least 22 games every year he’s been in the league, including the glory days of the franchise when an MLS Cup appearance was almost a given on the Revolution’s season-ticket plan.

Like Hernandez, however, Joseph has been turned away repeatedly while on the brink of his first-ever MLS Cup, meaning that the clock is ticking on the 32-year-old Grenada native. But until that time comes, crunch on, Shalrie.