Steady Opara anchors Sporting KC central defense

On a team with several nationally-recognized stars, Ike Opara of Sporting Kansas City’s often goes relatively unnoticed, although he is quietly having the best year of his career.

Opara, a 6-2, 180-pound central defender, has made the most starts and played the most minutes of any of his eight MLS seasons while contributing to a backline which has limited opponents to 19 goals in 25 matches, easily the best mark in the league.

Opara joined Sporting in 2013 after three years with the San Jose Earthquakes and saw how successful that championship team was defensively, but with a different style.

“We were really good defensively, like this team,” he said. “But we weren’t as possessive with the ball. Now we’re a lot more organized, attacking and defensively, when we have the ball and when we don’t. I think that has been a big aspect.”

The 2013 team reflected a league-wide style of play, featuring more of a wide-open attack.

“The league then was a lot about the high press and now we pick our moments,” Opara said. “We still have the high press incorporated in our game, but we’re a lot smarter with how we manage it.

“I think that team set the tone by coming at you. We were always coming at you. Defensively we weren’t going to let you have an entry space.”

The current team incorporates some of those attacking elements, but combines it with superior ball possession.

“Now we can come at you with different angles,” he said. “We can bring the high press. We can bring the counter-attack. We can bring the possessive build up.”

The 2013 team Opara joined was well stocked with talent, forcing him to step up his game in order to earn playing time.

“It was definitely on my mind when I came here,” he said. “I knew that the back line of this team was established, but it was a challenge that I was ready for and it was a different challenge from where I left in San Jose.”

Opara credits Sporting’s coach staff and his own hard work for his opportunity to break through. He was voted Sporting KC Newcomer of the Year while making 15 MLS starts and scoring three goals.

“It was hard work and the belief that I have in the staff, and vice versa,” he said. “I fit in well with the system and I kept a positive attitude, which I’ve always had. I think that allowed me to flourish and show my talents.”

Opara doesn’t shy from hard work. He has played the full 90 minutes in all 21 of his starts this season, second only to Seth Sinovic among Sporting defenders.

His work ethic was reflected in his play in the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt when he was still playing for Wake Forest University.

“At the time I was in college, so it was very tough,” he said. “It was a unique experience. I was starting to travel the world a little bit for soccer, so to be able to represent (the U.S.) at that level was unique and crazy for me, especially because it was during the fall season of my junior year, so it was very hectic and I had school work. It was a wild ride, but it was fun.”

After earning All-American honors in 2009, Opara was selected third overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft and appeared in 11 matches for San Jose before missing two months with a fractured left foot.

He scored three goals in 35 matches over three seasons with the Earthquakes and has netted 11 in his career, including two this season.

Opara’s 35-yard strike helped Sporting beat Minnesota United FC 3-0 on June 3.

Three weeks later, he delivered his best goal yet on an amazing bicycle kick, assisted by fellow defender Matt Besler.

“I had a feeling that Besler makes a good decision when he’s got the ball,” Opara said. “He knows when to keep the ball. He knows when to play the ball into a dangerous area. So, I had to take a chance that he was going to play the ball into a dangerous area.”

But why a bicycle kick?

“I knew that was probably my only option at the time, so I just went for it,” he said. “Not much to say other than right place, right time, and I tried it.”

It’s the only successful bicycle kick of Opara’s career. He’s tried a couple of others, including one at Wake Forest.

“I don’t know how I missed it,” he said.

But he didn’t miss against the L.A. Galaxy, and SKC went on to a 2-1 victory.

Sporting has done a lot of winning with Opara in their starting eleven. They are 10-2-9 with the 28-year-old on the back line and have allowed just 13 goals in those 21 matches, including only two matches allowing more than a single goal. He has played every minute of all ten shutouts.

Soccer is a natural fit for Opara, born to Nigerian immigrants who played the game.

“Being of Nigerian descent, my parents were big into soccer, so that’s kind of how it really started,” he said. “My dad was my first coach, through some team sports. I never felt pressure from him to play. It was just always enjoyable for me and it always stuck with me.”

Opara began playing about age four and enjoyed other sports, including baseball and basketball.

“It was pretty much soccer and basketball until I kind of made the full-time switch to soccer,” he said. “I kind of always knew it was going to be full-time soccer. I just liked the experience of playing other sports.

I think it helped cross over in both aspects, basketball and soccer, and vice versa. It just kind of made me a better player in both. I kind of always knew soccer just came more natural to me.”

Family helped keep his interest in the game.

“Especially when the World Cup was on, the family was around the TV watching,” Opara said. “It was always kind of on, but I never felt pressure to play or even to watch. I just kind of liked to watch.”

He’d like to pass along his easy-going style when his playing career is over.

“There’s a lot of things I’d like to dip my hand into,” he said. “I’d like to work with young adults in some sort of aspect, whether it’s in sports or maybe a mentor role. I’ve gotten the ‘you’d be a good teacher.’ I don’t know, but I can definitely see myself making the change in that regards.”

As a mentor, Opara believes it’s important to keep a broad approach to life.

“Keep an open mind,” he said. “Have empathy towards all sorts of people. You might not understand everyone’s situation. If you can just look at it from all perspectives, that’s one you can use to start yourself off on a good foot.”

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Article by Marc Bowman

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