SAN JOSE, Calif. – For two seasons, the San Jose Earthquakes held a spot in their starting lineup for young center back Ike Opara. That’s not necessarily the case in 2012.
The former All-American from Wake Forest, selected by the Quakes third overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, was everything a team could want in the middle of its defense: tall, rangy, blessed with a surfeit of recovery speed and a combination of height and hops that made him a threat on every set piece.
Unfortunately, he also had a left foot that broke twice under the strain of propelling his 6-foot-2 frame down the field at warp speed.
Now, as the 22-year-old Opara enters his third professional season, the Quakes are done waiting. After Montreal selected Bobby Burling, the man who picked up most of the minutes left open by Opara’s injuries, in the Expansion Draft, San Jose signed Honduran international Víctor Bernárdez – another tall, rangy center back with the kind of résumé that gains entry into most MLS starting lineups.
Opara knows it’s up to him to show that he can stay healthy through a full MLS season and, by extension, that he belongs in Frank Yallop’s first-choice XI.
“I think everyone, at some point, has to prove themselves,” Opara told reporters as the Quakes opened their 2012 training camp last week. “If this is my year, then so be it.”
Opara last played for the Quakes on May 28, when he started and went the full 90 minutes against Chicago in the last of his eight appearances. During training five days later, he tumbled to the ground untouched while chasing down a long pass meant for trialist Sercan Güvenisik, breaking the same bone on the bottom of his left foot that cut short his rookie campaign in 2010.
After months of rehabilitation, Opara feels ready to remind San Jose fans why they were so excited about his presence in the first place.
“It’s been good for a while now,” Opara said. “Sometime in December, I finally felt I was turning the corner. Until then, I had a few worries. I was probably not consistently feeling good. I feel good. I’m excited for the whole preseason.”
For Opara and the Quakes, the mantra is to build things up slowly, making sure not to risk another injury to the same spot. To avoid such an occurrence, Opara said he’s using specially molded cleats and different insoles and plates in his shoes to provide more support.
“I haven’t played consistently for six or seven months now, so there’s no need to rush,” he said. “But I don’t see anything in the future happening. For sure, pacing myself will be key, but being cleared, I want to do everything possible. That’s the goal.”
Opara said talking to other athletes who have come back from multiple, repeated injuries – such as LA Galaxy forward Chad Barrett, whom Opara saw in December at the wedding of San Jose midfielder Sam Cronin – have helped assuage his fears and gave him more confidence on his way back.
“I feel like I’ve got something to prove to myself, more so than anyone,” Opara said. “I’m not trying to prove it to anyone outside of this organization, really.
“The coaching staff, they’ve been with me for this two-year ride. Obviously, I want to do well for them. They’ve invested a lot in me. But for myself, just for my mental state and everything else, I want to do well.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.