RSL, N.Y. linked by love, hate
LEHI - Striker Clint Mathis played for the New York Red Bulls twice, and has nothing but good things to say about the organization. Midfielder Andy Williams spent most of a season there, and hasn't a harsh word. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando might still be with the team that Real Salt Lake is facing in the MLS Western Conference final on Saturday, had it not been for a desperation trade, and coach Jason Kreis finds his counterpart unusually friendly and accommodating.
Midfielder Dema Kovalenko, on the other hand?
Let's just say he has an entirely different perspective.
Like a jilted lover, the veteran midfielder remains furious with the coach who traded him to RSL - and away from the team he never wanted to leave.
Twice this season he has gone out of his way to express his raging contempt for coach Juan Carlos Osorio, and acknowledged Thursday that his feelings toward the man have not changed.
Yet Kovalenko is doing his best to keep a lid on his anger this week, for a reason he never would have imagined eight months ago - his new teammates, and their perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach the MLS Cup final.
"I didn't want to come, and I told the guys that," Kovalenko recalled. "But when I got to know the guys in Argentina for three weeks [during training camp], I knew it. I knew it. I don't know why. But I've been in good teams before, and knew this was a good group. Not necessarily that we were a good team at the time, because we had a lot of new players, but as a group - how we are. We respect each other. We're close to each other. You can see it, how we play now."
RSL is riding a seven-game unbeaten streak into its latest biggest game in franchise history at Rio Tinto Stadium, whose winner advances to meet Columbus in the MLS Cup on Nov. 23. But it has never beaten the Red Bulls, who have proven to be just as surprising a story as RSL, having stunned two-time defending champion Houston after being the last team into the playoffs.
"They're going to be a hard team," midfielder Will Johnson said. "But it doesn't matter who you play at this point. It's such a big game that everybody is focused."
While RSL has risen to the conference final after three agonizing seasons at the bottom of the standings, the Red Bulls are arguably the longest-suffering team in the league, the only original MLS franchise to have never reached a conference final until now.
But their former players are not exactly feeling for them.
"It's the conference finals, that's the most important thing," Mathis said. "It doesn't matter if I was at New York or not. I don't look at it any differently."
Among the former Red Bulls on the RSL roster, Mathis is the most prominent. He remains the second-leading scorer in franchise history, counting his days with the MetroStars, before they became the Red Bulls under new ownership, and is widely remembered for iconic moments like flashing an "I [Heart] NY" shirt under his jersey after scoring a goal.
Williams, meanwhile, played about two-thirds of the 2002 season with the MetroStars before being traded to Chicago, and Rimando was simply in training camp with New York for a few days last year after RSL - having acquired him from D.C. United in the Freddy Adu deal - traded him there. He returned to RSL in another trade just two weeks later, after incumbent goalkeeper Scott Garlick shocked RSL by unexpectedly retiring at the start of training camp.
And Kovalenko? He played the last two seasons for the Red Bulls and coach Bruce Arena, and became a fan favorite. He understood his future was uncertain after Arena resigned after last season, knowing that new coaches often like to bring in their own players, but said Osorio "was not honest with me. . . . He's a two-faced guy."
That's a curious contrast to Kreis' view of Osorio, who surprised the young RSL coach with his willingness to share ideas and information. Kreis said he even consulted Osorio about fellow Colombian Jamison Olave before RSL signed the central defender last winter.
"In some ways, he has taken me a little under his wing," Kreis said, "and I'm appreciative for that."
At any rate, Kovalenko is trying to keep his issues to himself this week, though he acknowledged it's hard - especially because he still misses his old teammates on the Red Bulls.
"It just makes it a little extra motivation for me," he said. "But it's about the team, it's not about him. I'm not happy that he got rid of me and I don't like the guy. But that stuff is just between me and him. It has nothing to do with the team. The most important thing is to go out there and leave everything on the field and understand that it's a very, very good opportunity for us to move on, especially playing at home with our crowd. . . . This game is a lot bigger than anything else."
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium
TV: Fox Soccer Channel / HD Net
Tickets: Call 801-924-8585 or visit http://www.RioTintoStadium.com