CARSON, Calif. — At the start of the 2010 season, Dema Kovalenko was supposed to play a key role in the LA Galaxy’s midfield.
But an early season hamstring injury derailed any hopes of stability and consistent playing time for the veteran who played the full 90 minutes in each of the Galaxy’s first two games of the 2010 season.
But now Kovalenko is back, and he appears to have re-captured his place in the starting XI. After missing more than three months as a result of the injury, Kovalenko has slowly worked his way back into playing shape and last Saturday played 90 minutes for the second consecutive match, even scoring his first goal in a Galaxy uniform in the 3-1 win over Columbus.
“I’ve been back training, but it’s different," Kovalenko said. "When you’re on the field, when you’re training or in a game, it feels a lot different. I played 90 minutes last week and Bruce gave me 90 minutes [Saturday], and I feel a lot better. But I know I have to get a little sharper, more fit a little bit, but it will come.”
Kovalenko played in the Galaxy’s 2-0 win over Chivas USA on April 1 but suffered a hamstring strain in pregame warmups ahead of the win at Houston on April 10, and did not play a league game again until July 22 against San Jose. He came off the bench a few weeks later at home against Chicago, but then saw no activity until the teams met again at Toyota Park more than a month later.
While his appearance alone isn’t enough to halt turn LA' s summer swoon, Kovalenko does add a noticeable bite and tenacity to the squad when he is on the field.
“His intensity in the midfield and work ethic is important,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “This is a physical league, and we’ve missed some physical dimensions, and Dema brings that.”
With Kovalenko fully fit and available for each game, the competition for starting spots increases. Neither Michael Stephens nor Chris Birchall, who have made 44 starts between them this season, have started the last two games in which the Galaxy have taken four of a possible six points and snapped a two-game losing streak. Instead, Kovalenko paired with Jovan Kirovski against the Fire and then with Juninho in central midfield last weekend with Kirovski moving up front. But despite the heavy competition for sports in Arena’s starting midfield, further crowded by the return of David Beckham, who made his 2010 Galaxy debut against the Crew, Kovalenko is confident in his ability to remain in the starting lineup.
“You’ve always got to be confident as a player, but the team changes," he said. "Every guy in this locker room can do well, starting from the youngest guy, Tristan [Bowen] and the other guys. Everybody is getting healthy now, David’s back and it’s going to be tough.”
Ultimately, though, Kovalenko sees the benefits of depth in the midfield.
“I think it’s going to be good for the team," he said. "It keeps you on your toes knowing if you don’t do your job, somebody will take it. It’s good for everybody, and we have a good group of guys. We compete against each other but we understand. We’re here for a reason, and that’s to win.”
The Galaxy enter Saturday’s match against D.C. United with a chance to run their unbeaten streak to three games. While that was commonplace early in the year, LA have not had a three-game unbeaten streak in league play since June 5, when they beat Houston 4-1 to run their overall record to 10-0-2.
Saturday’s win over Columbus was encouraging, Kovalenko said, but the consistency must be there.
“Last year we got to where we wanted to be, but didn’t finish,” he said. “This year, we have the same team, we’re a good enough team and I think we have the best team in the league but we have to show it. I can say it but we have to show it.”
“If we come out and play like we did [Saturday], we’re going to be tough to beat.”