Photos by ISIphotos.com
When you consider all the scenarios that had to fall into place in order for Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls to meet in the Western Conference final this Saturday, you have to chalk it up to fate. When you realize everything that had to happen in order for close friends and former teammates Dema Kovalenko and Sinisa Ubiparipovic to face each other with a place in the MLS Cup final on the line, you can start to believe in destiny.
Neither team qualified until the final weekend of the season, Real Salt Lake courtesy of a last-minute goal and the Red Bulls courtesy of a plethora of D.C. United misses in a season-ending loss. Both teams were underdogs in their playoff series, with the Red Bulls facing a two-time champion, and each squad found a way to knock off higher seeds.
Kovalenko and Ubiparipovic played key roles in both series victories. Kovalenko delivered a goal in Real Salt Lake’s decisive game two against Chivas USA while Ubiparipovic delivered the crucial pass for the first of three Red Bulls goals in their series-clinching victory. Their contributions came despite Kovalenko’s battle with injuries late in the season and the fact that Ubiparipovic hadn’t started for the Red Bulls in months before being thrust into the starting lineup in the playoffs.
That either player is still playing is a bit of a miracle considering a fateful evening that could have ended badly, but spared them both and brought them closer together.
It was a warm summer night in New Jersey in August of 2007 and Kovalenko and Ubiparipovic were driving back home from having dinner in New York when an overzealous driver cut off their car and sent their vehicle out of control. Their car flipped over several times before hitting a wall under a bridge near Giants Stadium. Kovalenko was sleeping when the accident happened while Ubiparipovic, the driver, was awake for every terrifying second and closed his eyes, praying he wouldn’t die.
“(Dying) went through my head in the beginning and I just closed my eyes and a few seconds later you open them and you’re fine,” Ubiparipovic said. “You pray to God that everything is fine and luckily for both of us we were pretty fortunate.”
“I remember opening my eyes and I was upside down, Kovalenko recalled. “I remember getting out of the car and not knowing what happened.”
Miraculously, both players avoided life-threatening injuries, but Kovalenko suffered facial fractures that forced him to go to the hospital that night. When Kovalenko returned home that same night, he found his roommate and close friend in tears, apologizing for the accident. Kovalenko tried to assure Ubiparipovic that he wasn’t to blame.
“First couple of days it was pretty hard on both of us from an emotional standpoint,” Ubiparipovic said. “I felt bad enough because, luckily, I came out with nothing and I was training within a few days.
“He was the one who had a nose injury and he couldn’t train for at least a month and I felt bad for him,” Ubiparipovic said. “It’s just that guilt that you have in a situation like that. We had our moments when we didn’t want to talk about it because we didn’t want to get into it, but I think it brought us closer because he knew it wasn’t something I meant to have happen.”
“There were times when I was mad at him because I missed a lot of time, like six or seven games,” Kovalenko said. “It’s my job, what I do, so to not be able to play was tough. In the end I knew it was just a mistake, he wasn’t drinking, something just happened.”
“I think it was tough for both of them, injuries aside,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Danny Cepero, who was also a roommate at the time. “Dema caught the brunt of the accident with the broken nose but I think Sinisa felt bad and was hard on himself early on, especially seeing Dema struggling to get back and frustrated that he wasn’t playing.
“Once the wounds healed I think those unseen wounds healed as well and I think they were better friends for it.”
A year later, the two friends now find themselves on opposite sides of a battle for an MLS Cup berth, something that didn’t seem likely just three weeks ago. Ubiparipovic had settled in as a reserve for the Red Bulls, but the poor form of Venezuelan playmaker Jorge Rojas and the season-ending injury to Seth Stammler opened the door for him to crack the starting lineup. He responded with a pair of strong performances against Houston.
With Kovalenko re-establishing himself as an RSL starter, the two former roommates are now set to clash in Saturday’s Western Conference final.
“This one’s going to have a special feeling because whoever wins goes through to the final,” Ubiparipovic said. “I think it’s going to be a special night for both of us so I’m looking forward to it.”
“For us to play each other, so many things had to happen and they did and I’m glad they did because I’m looking forward to this game,” Kovalenko said. “It’s more motivation for me to beat these guys, but I want our team to make it to the final because that’s a special feeling.
“I already told the guys that chances like these don’t always come,” said Kovalenko, who lost an MLS Cup final in 2000 and won an MLS Cup title in 2004 with D.C. United.
As for what it will be like facing Ubiparipovic, Kovalenko admitted that part of the reason he has avoided getting too close to teammates in the past was because of possibilities just like these, where you will have to clash with them, fight with them, and for 90 minutes, hate them. While he considers Ubiparipovic one of these former teammates he has become close with, Kovalenko is clear that he will have no problem battling the friend he has been through so much with.
“When we step on the field, there will be no friends,” Kovalenko said. “After the match, we’ll talk and be friends again, but in the game, we’ll both be fighting to win.”
No matter the outcome, when the match is over you can be sure that Kovalenko and Ubiparipovic will find each other on the field at Rio Tinto Stadium and share a handshake, a hug and maybe even an exchange of jerseys. As important as Saturday night’s match is, it won’t change everything these two friends have been through.