Opara says he's finally near 100 percent for Earthquakes

Ike Opara received a yellow card for removing his shirt in celebration of his 120th-minute, game-winning goal in the San Jose Earthquakes’ 1-0 victory against Portland in US Open Cup qualifying play last week.

Who knows what would have happened if the second-year defender had followed through on his initial celebratory choice?

“Actually, I was thinking about doing a chainsaw and cutting down the [corner] flag, but I was on the other side” of JELD-WEN Field from Timber Joey, Portland’s lumberjack mascot, Opara told MLSsoccer.com. “So the planned celebration didn’t go as I wanted it.”

Opara can afford some levity at this point. After a broken foot prematurely ended his rookie season, and this year began with groin and hip strains, he's finally feeling like the All-American who starred at Wake Forest before being selected No. 3 overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.

“I think I am getting [to 100 percent], as close as I’ve been in a while,” Opara said. “From fitness to my physical, mental, all parts of the game, I think I’m as close as I’ve been since the beginning of last year, end of college.”

Opara’s tally against the Timbers continued to show why his health is a critical piece of the puzzle for the Earthquakes as they attempt to dig themselves out of a 1-4-2 hole and last place in the Western Conference. The 22-year-old’s leaping ability and exquisite timing on headers makes him the Quakes’ most dangerous target on set pieces. He’s especially good at making a second run if a free kick or corner kick fails to be cleared properly and possession is quickly re-established by San Jose in the attacking third, as happened in Portland.

“He’s an athlete, and we’ve got to make sure he’s finely tuned and he’s not feeling any pain,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “When he’s not [feeling pain], he’s done well.

Leg injuries are especially tough on Opara, since his recovery burst is one of the biggest assets in his arsenal.

“Just running around, I’m more comfortable,” Opara said. “I’m able to do some things now that I wasn’t able to do in the past. I feel like I’m moving better with the ball, without the ball. It’s getting there.”

Opara was the first defender taken in the 2010 draft, but it was another center back, New York’s Tim Ream, who became a mainstay for his team and even earned a handful of appearances with the US senior national team over the winter.

Injuries prevented Opara from following that path — he had started 10 matches last season before the foot problem — but he’s hoping to get back on that kind of trajectory. Whether Opara returns to the Quakes’ starting XI in Vancouver on Wednesday (10 pm ET, Direct Kick, MatchDay Live) is one of several key roster decisions Yallop must make heading into the match. San Jose are searching for their first win in MLS play since March 26 at Dallas.

“I’m working at it every day,” Opara said of making himself indispensible to the Quakes’ coaching staff. “Showing well in games is key as well. I think that this past weekend, that’s a start to hopefully better things down the road. Showing the coaching staff, giving them confidence that I can do the job not just on the practice field but in games, where it really matters. I think that’s key.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes