Analysis

Ike Opara: MLS' top defender 'wants to be an example of persevering'

Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports

From a walking injury to the rock for the best defense in MLS, Sporting KC's star center back is finally where he wants to be.

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Ike Opara knew full well how he was perceived across MLS.

Even after he set career highs in appearances, starts and minutes played in 2016, the league-wide view on the Sporting Kansas City center back coming into the 2017 season was marked by a large asterisk, hanging next to some form of the phrase “when healthy.”

Ruptured Achilles tendon. Concussion. Hamstring. Right ankle chondral defect. The list reads like a morbid tour of soccer health woes over his seven-year pro career. From nagging to catastrophic, they always seemed to interrupt his momentum towards fulfillment of his enormous potential.

A year later, he’s accepting the MLS Defender of the Year award, having dominated the player and media votes by 18 and 24 percent margins, respectively, a sign of his clear status as the league’s best.

“I had a moment of clarity last offseason, when I was trying to figure out where I was going to be,” Opara told FourFourTwo this week. “I wanted to change the narrative on what had been my career. I had always known I had the talent, to be honest. It was just a matter of, can I put it together and get in a rhythm over a run of games? I made a promise to myself that I was going to do literally anything that I could to change the narrative.

“I don’t necessarily care what other people say or whatnot, but at the same time I’m not an idiot – I know what’s been said and I understand what the outlook may have been about me.”

Opara, 28, now follows a meticulous daily and weekly ritual to keep his body right. The result is back-to-back career seasons as the rock of the league’s stingiest backline, and a sneaky set-piece scoring threat to boot.

Even a Maxi Urruti bicycle kick to the face during SKC’s epic extra-time U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal victory over FC Dallas in July – Opara appeared to be out cold and was rushed to the hospital that night amid fears of serious brain trauma – could not derail his 2017, as he made a swift recovery and would start 30 of Sporting’s 34 league matches.

“I hope to be inspiration to anyone who’s had injuries and who doubts themselves. I want to be an example of persevering,” said Opara this week. “For me it was making sure I had, whether it’s the proper amount of Vitamin D, electrolytes in my system, massages a couple times a week, cryotherapy … making sure I’m constantly in the gym fine-tuning – core, lower body, upper body. I work out in the mornings on the day of games, making sure that I’m always able to be on the field.

“Being out for a couple years provides you with a new outlook. But I want to do it again. I want to be the best I can be – and at the very worst, consistent; consistently where I’ve been this season.”

Normally, this kind of campaign would be perfectly timed for Opara to surge into the U.S. men's national team’s World Cup picture, especially given the instability that’s dogged central defense for the program over the past year or so.

But it’s not a normal year for American soccer, of course. That instability helped torpedo the U.S.’ quest for Russia 2018 qualification, and now Opara is staring at another harsh reality: The possibility that he’ll never even get a chance to make his case for a World Cup trip.

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people probably have that uncertainty, just based off what’s happened with the national team and where the program might be going now,” he said of his own international prospects. “I honestly don’t know. I wish I had answers.

“But I’ve just got to stay focused on what I am and making sure that whenever I’m on the field, I do everything I can do and make it hard to be overlooked.”

He seems to have made his peace with the prospect, and is savoring his current success, even with the sour aftertaste of SKC’s season having ended prematurely via an extra-time knockout round playoff loss at Houston. He's also become an inspiration to teammates and opponents alike. 

“It’s tough to put into words,” he said as he reflected on the milestone provided by the award. “Without the team allowing me to be who I am on and off the field, there’s no way this would be possible.

“I’m thinking about how crazy it is to have been voted by my peers and other people who have a say. Honestly, I’m speechless because I wanted to thank so many people when I heard, who have been along on the journey – my family, athletic trainers, just so many people who get overlooked in this whole process … it was a collective effort by many.”

Opara was named on the preliminary national-team list (about 60 players long) for November’s friendly against Portugal, but didn’t make the final cut of interim coach Dave Sarachan. He’ll be 30 by the time the qualifying process for Qatar 2022 gets going. But there’s no sense in closing that door just yet. If the tremendously talented defender can stretch out his current run for a few good years, he’ll be hard for the future U.S. boss to miss.

“I would never say no and I would try to help, whether it was just a qualifier or a World Cup – unfortunately five years from now,” he said. “But I think as a whole, any way to try to be productive for our national team in any aspect – especially after what happened – it would be dumb to turn that down.

With that being said, I think these would be the crucial years to try to develop a new core for the next decade, so I would understand why I wouldn’t be in that picture if that was the case. But we’ll see. I’m not going to hope for a miracle. I’m going to go with the flow and see what happens.”

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