The competitiveness and determination never left him, but the smile is back for the LA Galaxy's Dema Kovalenko.
It was over two months ago, during pregame warmups before the third game of the season against the Houston Dynamo, that the veteran midfielder suffered a pulled right hamstring. The forced inactivity had been disappointing, to say the least, for him but now he is back in training and ready to go.
Kovalenko, who turns 33 in August, said the hamstring still is not 100 percent, but he said he’s close. He couldn't do any training at all as recently as three weeks ago.
"It's nice to be back with the team again," he said. "Anyway I can get back and play. I'm just happy to be back."
Whether or not he regains his starting spot remains to be seen.
Kovalenko admitted he wouldn't be surprised if head coach Bruce Arena makes no changes to a lineup that has produced a 10-1-2 record, the best in MLS.
"I understand that," he said. "Whenever I come back, wherever Bruce uses me, I'm going to fight and compete like I always do. I'm going to try and get my spot, but the guys are doing well and we're winning.
"I just have to wait for my chance and I understand that. If I have to come off the bench and help the guys, that's fine, too. I don't like it and Bruce knows that. I've missed a long time, and however they use me I'll accept it. It's not a problem."
Kovalenko said dealing with injuries doesn't get any easier, despite this being his 12th season in MLS.
"It gets harder," he said. "Especially when you want to play, because you don't know how much time you have left. I'm going to be 33 this year, and it kills me when I watch games and I can't help. But the team is doing well.
"If I was on the coaching staff, I wouldn’t make that many changes. I’d stick with the same guys that got us here. But as Bruce has said, it's a long season and we need everybody. We have a lot of competitions coming up and the guys understand that. We're not selfish; we're in this for the team and hopefully we all stay healthy."
Just how busy is the Galaxy's upcoming schedule?
They return to regular season action on Saturday, June 26 at Toronto FC. Three days later is a Third Round game in the U.S. Open Cup against either AC St. Louis or NSC Minnesota Stars of the USSF Division 2 Pro League. Then it's back to the MLS schedule for the club’s annual July 4 game, this time against the Seattle Sounders FC, before a potential Open Cup Quarterfinal on July 6 or 7.
League games on July 10, July 18 (both of which are on the East Coast against New England and D.C. United) and a July 22 home date against San Jose precede the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Preliminary Round game against the Puerto Rico Islanders at The Home Depot Center, which rounds out the month on July 27.
The schedule does not let up at the start of August either, with a home game against Chicago on Aug. 1, a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the second leg of their series with the Islanders on Aug. 4 and, finally, a much-anticipated international friendly against Inter Milan on Aug. 7.
All totaled, that would leave the club playing a total of 11 games in a total of 43 days.
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said he isn't dreading this time of the season, but he is concerned with the health of his team, which appears to be much-improved with the recent returns of Kovalenko, midfielder Eddie Lewis, forward Alan Gordon and defender Leonardo.
Arena won't say if he's looking forward to the busy schedule, though.
"I'm not sure I know the answer to that yet," he said. "I'll let you know once we get into it."
Thursday's training session marked the returns of midfielder Chris Birchall and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who were given permission to spend a little more time with their families in England and Jamaica, respectively.
"I did a bit of work back home, so I didn't have the entire break off," Birchall said. "It was tough today, but it's always tough the first day back. You're trying to get your legs back from a long flight. I'm refreshed and thankful for the break.”
Ricketts said he appreciated the time off, too. Any kind of break in the routine is fine by him.
"For me, a break is always good," he said with a grin. "The middle, start, the end ... I don't care. I'm always happy for a break."