“Good,” was Ike Opara’s simple answer when GotSoccer asked how he felt physically, after scoring the lone goal in Sporting Kansas City’s 1-0 win over New York City FC Saturday night at Yankee Stadium.
Sadly though, when it comes to Opara’s health, the answer has been anything but simple since the athletic central defender arrived in Major League Soccer out of Wake Forest as the third pick of the 2010 SuperDraft.
Opara was grabbed up by the San Jose Earthquakes, and why not? The defender was an obvious pick. With his long easy stride, the 6’2” Opara was twice named the ACC Defender of the Year, and was part of the 2009 NCAA College Cup Champion Demon Deacons as a freshman, as well as a U.S. YNT regular.
Success in the paid ranks seemed a given, until injuries slowed Opara’s rise. Foot problems ruined his first two seasons with the Quakes, and after making just 16 appearances for San Jose in 2012, Opara was shipped to Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting Coach and Technical Director Peter Vermes always believed in Opara’s talent, describing the defender as, “a monster,” after Saturday’s match.
“There has never been a question whether or not he can be that guy, and take over that position,” was how Vermes put it at Yankee Stadium. “I mean, I would tell you,” Vermes added, “that he is probably the best player in the league in the air.”
Vermes was counting on Opara to “be that guy,” when he shipped MLS All Star defender Aurelien Collin to Orlando SC prior to this season, leaving the spot for Opara to claim.
With two goals in SKC’s first four games, in addition to solid defensive work, Opara has done just that. But the 26 year old is not counting his chickens just yet.
“You know,” Opara told GotSoccer Saturday night, “I think I’ve taken a whole new perspective.” “When you’ve gone through as many injuries,” Opara said, and he paused as he struggled for the right words, before continuing, “early on, I was putting so much pressure on myself, trying to do too much, to make up for lost time.”
That is where Opara’s new perspective comes in. “Now, I’m just having fun. I realize that each game is one I should cherish and appreciate, because “Opara notes sagely, “it could be gone just like that.”
Opara certainly looked like a fully healthy man having fun in the 13th minute of Saturday’s match against NYC FC. Sporting won a throw in near the corner flag on the first base side of the narrow Yankee Stadium soccer pitch.
Vermes had prepped his team for just such a scenario, and his two center backs were the key to the coach’s strategy. U.S. MNT World Cup defender Matt Besler was not called in to European camp by Jurgen Klinsmann, so Vermes happily unleashed the long throw specialist on NYC.
Besler fired a fastball that Opara met with perfect timing and power, and Josh Saunders never had a chance in City’s net. Afterwards Vermes said of Opara, “he’s got remarkable timing in the air,” adding, “he’s excellent at attacking set pieces.”
This may be just the start for Opara, a start delayed by those injuries, the worst of which came just about a year ago, as Opara was looking to build on a successful first season with Kansas City.
Arriving from San Jose, Opara had slotted in comfortably as SKC’s third center back, appearing in a career high 19 games, as Sporting won the MLS Cup.
Then in a win at Colorado, Opara hurt his ankle. Initially he expected a short stint on the sideline, but an MRI said differently, and Opara would miss the remainder of the 2014 season.
Surgery seems to have corrected Opara’s injury, classified as a chondral defect. I asked Vermes if he thinks that now Opara can be the player he was projected to be coming out of college.
“I’d like to hope so,” was the coach’s response. Vermes said that Sporting’s medical staff and trainers have done a lot of work with Opara, while noting that some of his injuries have been, “just bad luck.”
“One of the biggest things for a player like him is if you get a good number of games in a row, it gives you a routine, where you’re kind of there regularly.”
So far in 2015 Opara has been there regularly, and he has been noticed, having been nominated for the MLS Player of the Month for March. Opara is up against the former World Player of the Year in Kaka (Orlando SC), as well as Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls), Blas Perez (FC Dallas), and Octavio Rivero (Vancouver Whitecaps).
That’s some stiff competition, just don’t expect Opara to get too excited over the outcome of an award in March. Keep in mind Opara’s new perspective. “After all the injuries I’ve had, I just enjoy and have fun with each game, and take it game by game,” is how the P.O.M. nominee put it.
Opara feels good and is having fun, and if his good health continues, Opara could be in for a “monster” season.