No Matt Besler? No Aurelien Collin? Ike Opara assumes defensive mantle for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Matt Besler is headed to the Gold Cup title game with the US national team, and Aurelien Collin will be serving his second caution-accumulation suspension of the year.

For the first time this season, Sporting Kansas City's central defense will be Ike Opara's to run.

Manager Peter Vermes has no problem handing him the keys in Saturday's match at Montreal (7 pm ET, TSN2, RDS, MLS Live), especially after Opara's last outing. He earned a spot on the MLS Team of the week for his play in last weekend's 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake, in which he delivered the game-winning header deep in second-half stoppage time.

“He's played well for us every time he's had to come in,” Vermes told reporters on Wednesday. “He's done a great job. He should feel very confident just based on his play. The goal is some added boost, if you will. But in the end, he should feel very confident.”

Opara has two goals in nine appearances – eight of them starts – in his first season with Sporting, after coming over in an offseason trade with San Jose. Each of those times, though, he was paired with either Besler or Collin, both of whom are 2013 All-Stars and were members of the 2012 Best XI.

In their absence, he said, he has no problem assuming a leadership role.

“It's been a while since I've been that guy, if that's what people are hinting at,” he said. “But it's fine. It's natural for me for me to be vocal back there anyway, so I'm looking forward to it.”

On Wednesday, Vermes worked both Lawrence Olum and Mechack Jerome alongside Opara, and said he hadn't yet decided who would get the start against the Impact. Olum has more experience in the position, including his start in last year's US Open Cup final victory, but Jerome – used exclusively as a right back so far with Sporting – played as a center back for Haiti in the Gold Cup.

“I knew he played there at other times before, but I never really had a chance to see him,” Vermes said. “I only knew him as an outside player, but he's really played well in the Gold Cup from that perspective.”

Whoever winds up being his partner in central defense, Opara is looking forward to his chance to help Sporting build their Eastern Conference lead.

“It's going to be exciting,” he said. “For me, personally, I love the challenge. It's just another challenge to meet head-on.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.