Some defenders will half-blush and pass the praise when they go on a scoring streak. They might point to luck. Not Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City’s all-action center-back, who scored four fine goals in June alone. “I’ve worked hard on my timing and made adjustments,” he told ussoccer.com after scoring the winner in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 win over Houston Dynamo. “I think I finally got it figured out.”
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It’s no surprise Opara finds the net now and again. He was a striker until he turned 16, when youth coaches recognized his power, athleticism and work-rate might be put to better use at the heart of defense. And it’s precisely those skills he’s honed at the back that have helped him get his mojo working up front this summer. “As a defender, I know where those blind-spots are between the lines,” said Opara, who grew up in North Carolina after his parents emigrated from Nigeria. “I know how hard it can be to follow a run into those spaces and I try to take full advantage of that.”
Opara is 28, a veteran of Major League Soccer since 2010 and among its best defenders. He sees scoring goals as more craft than art, something to be unlocked and worked on. He approaches the task with determination and keen focus, the same way he did when fighting back from a pair of serious injuries (ankle and Achilles tendon) that brought him to the brink of early retirement in 2015. “You have to work on these things; they don’t just come because you want them to,” said Opara, a favorite among Kansas City’s fans and the club’s backroom staff, known for his good humor and style. “You have to make things hard on defenders – believe me I know. You have to shake them off and get the right angle on the ball – even when they’re grabbing your shirt in the box and wrestling with you – the kind of stuff the ref never sees! You have to find a way to shake free.”
Finding Angles, Seams & In Betweens
His snap header against Houston in the Cup was a goal any striker would be proud of. But it was a week earlier – in a 2-1 win over LA Galaxy – when Opara hit the headlines with a circus goal – a thing of rare beauty. “It was a split-second decision to go for the bicycle-kick,” he said about his goal, all improvisation and high-flying heroics. Opara raced into the box and turned on the ‘keeper before poking a looping ball over his shoulder and into the net. With his back to the onrushing Clement Diop, he risked life and limb to get that goal. “Once you’re in the box, the keeper’s got a free shot at you so I expected contact. But I caught him by surprise because I didn’t get hit!”
Opara’s antics in the attacking end are no surprise to former U.S. international Peter Vermes. “We’ve seen him do that before,” said the Kansas City coach, a no-nonsense defender in his playing days. “It was a heads-up play and he had to just go for it without knowing a lot about the situation. And that’s what he did. That’s the kind of player he his.”
It’s easy to get caught up in Opara’s goals - he really has refined that part of his game. But Sporting Kansas City’s defense has, for years, been the star of the show. With Opara at the heart of the backline, they’ve conceded just 13 league goals this season, amassing nine shut-outs in the bargain. In their two Open Cup games, SKC haven’t conceded yet.
And when talking about this department, his bread and butter, Opara is humble. He pulls up. He recognizes the sacrifices all over the field that make a mean rearguard. “It’s a credit to the whole team,” said Opara, passing praise on to the guys in front of him the same way his goalkeeper Tim Melia passes praise onto him. “The guys in the midfield and up front put a lot of pressure on and don’t let teams get comfortable. When the ball gets back here, we fight like hell and don’t let many shots get by. We’re confident in what we do.”
You wouldn’t get much argument around the league. Playing SKC is no fun for strikers. It’s a grind and a graft, and if you manage to squeeze out a goal, it comes at a cost. A lot of that is down to Opara, who’s among the cream of MLS’ defensive fraternity. He’s in the top-ten in most of the statistical categories that seem to matter these days (duels won, recoveries, interceptions and tackles). But those are just numbers and they don’t impress Opara much. He’s in it for one thing: trophies.
A Legacy to Protect
“People have different ambitions in professional soccer: fame, money, family, comfort – things like that,” said Opara, who will have more expected of him after SKC lost fellow center-back Matt Besler to international duty and midfield creator Benny Feilhaber to long-term injury. “But at the end of the day, when it’s all over, you have those trophies to show. No one can take those away. Everyone here wants that. We have a legacy to protect and a lot of the guys here – the core guys – are used to winning and want to keep it up.”
Kansas City, who were last crowned champs of MLS back in 2013, are on track for two trophies this year. They’re on top of the league’s Western Conference and flying high in the Open Cup, a tournament they won three times, most recently in 2015 when Opara was engaged in a grueling rehab after a tendon rupture. Next up is a date with defending champs FC Dallas in the Quarterfinals on July 11. It’s a home game for Sporting, and that means more in Kansas City than most places. “We have guys in the team who’ve played for a long time and in a lot of places,” said Opara. “But here in Kansas City, with the fans we have, it’s just something special. Coming home really feels like coming home for us. It’s a unique and beautiful thing between players and fans here.”Opara’s measuring all the angles, looking for the best way to goal and the right way to keep opponents away from his own. He’s only getting one paycheck, but he’s doing two jobs. And he can handle it. “This is the Open Cup, so you better be ready and you better be hungry,” he said, steel in his voice. “You win and you survive, so we’re coming to play.”