When Ike Opara left Sporting Kansas City for Minnesota United, there were whispers. Whispers that the 30-year-old had peaked, that the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year was no longer what he was, that the team with which he had won the MLS Cup in 2013 and the U.S. Open Cup in 2015 and 2017 had made the right choice between Opara and Andreu Fontas. As the 2019 season draws to a close, those whispers have gone quiet.
In Minnesota, Opara has helmed a defense that’s improved in both measurable and less obvious ways. In 2017 and 2018, MNUFC conceded 70 and 71 goals, respectively. With a handful of games remaining, the Loons this year have conceded 39, and turned goal differentials of -23 and -21 into a +9, as of this writing. In 2019, Opara has played in nine of the team’s 10 clean sheet wins and has even stepped up his offensive workrate. With three goals, he leads Minnesota’s defenders and has tied his career high, adding in an assist and scoring twice against FC Cincinnati — a single-game career record for the centerback.
But while the numbers here can attest to the results, they don’t fully reveal the process of transformation that Opara has been at the center of this season. While there are moments of individual brilliance, soccer is first and foremost a game of communication and chemistry when it comes to the team, and Opara has brought together the team both on and off the field through his experience, his camaraderie and his intensity.
“There's training room Ike, and then there's gameday Ike,” said rookie defender Chase Gasper. “Gameday Ike, when he's locked in, you can tell. It's definitely inspiring. You want to be like that guy. I take the right into the locker room and you've got to shake everyone's hand when you get there and he's on the right side of the wall, furthest one back. So you shake LO’s [Lawrence Olum] hand, Dayne's hand, Kevin's hand, Romain's hand, Jan's hand, Vito's hand and then you get to Ike and he's got his headphones in, locked in, and you've gotta tap him on the shoulder even though you're in his line of vision.”
A defender needs that kind of focus to stay locked in for 90+ minutes at a time, week in and week out, throughout the season. But a good leader on that backline also needs to balance it with a certain garrulousness in communication, and Opara is constantly talking and signaling throughout the game, getting his teammates into the right places while taking it on himself to track back and cover any and all mistakes.
When the Loons added Opara, they were hoping to get better. That’s about all a team can reasonably hope for. But what they got in Ike Opara was a player whose considerable abilities were matched only by his leadership and the way he’s remade not just a defense, but a culture.