KANSAS CITY, Kan. – His successful comeback accomplished, Ike Opara is focused on what's ahead while still remembering all the work it took for him to be able to play again for Sporting Kansas City – or to play again at all, for that matter.
“It was very, very strenuous, difficult, time-consuming,” Opara told reporters on Wednesday, during the club's weekly news conference. “I owe a lot to our training staff for putting in the time with me. There were a lot of long days, and it's one of those things where you take your wins because not every day is a good day during that process. I remember the days from the surgery to being in a hard cast, from the scooter to finally getting around running – just so much time put into it.
“And it's still a fight – just one of those where I have to keep perspective and keep moving on from there.”
In Opara's case, “moving on” from the broken ankle that ended his 2014 season in late March means moving forward as one of Sporting's first-choice center backs and their top set-piece threat after the trade of three-time MLS All-Star and 2013 MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Collin to expansion side Orlando City SC.
He didn't disappoint in his return – going all 90 minutes, scoring Kansas City's lone goal on a header and earning MLS Team of the Week honors for his play at both ends in Sporting's 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls in Sunday's season opener.
And with captain Matt Besler suspended for Saturday's match, after drawing two yellow cards against New York, Opara will have to take on the leadership role in central defense when Sporting open Western Conference play on Saturday at FC Dallas (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
“I like the responsibility,” he told reporters after the match. “I felt like before my injury, I was showing my abilities and leadership qualities with the guys, directing traffic in front of me. It's one of those things that now – Bes is a vital part of this team, but the burden is also on me to help out whoever's on my side.”
When the extent of Opara's injury was first revealed, hopes for his return to the pitch were tempered by the knowledge that of all the bones that he might have fractured, the one he broke was one of the worst.
Opara sustained a chondral defect fracture to the talus, the second-largest bone in the ankle region and one that is poorly supplied with blood. That makes for slower healing and also increases the risk of avascular necrosis, where bone tissue in an affected area begins to die.
In short, a break there can end a career, not just a season.
“That sounds like a bit of a death scare, in a sense,” Opara said on Wednesday. “It just sends shock waves throughout. My reaction was, I think, what you'd expect: 'Why me? Why did this have to happen?' But then, quickly, I just switched gears. It's always easier to find the negatives in things, so figuring out some way to stay positive was huge for me.”
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Rehab work provided that incentive.
“I knew going into it that a lot of it was based on how much time and effort you put into the recovery process,” he said. “When the doctors told me that, it was, 'OK.’ That's where I'm going to put my focus, make sure I use every day as best I can through it – and with any ups and downs, make sure I'm doing the best that I can.”
And so he progressed: from crutches, to a scooter, to walking with a boot, to walking unaided, and finally to jogging at first – and then running again.
“Toward the end of last year, when I started getting on the (training) field again a little bit, doing individual sessions, I started feeling like myself again,” he said. “The progressions were getting ramped up a bit. I was feeling pretty confident and positive. And then it was finally OK to get in a team setting. I would say the second trip to Arizona was where I really felt, 'OK, now I can make one of the last steps of getting in games and getting in team sessions.”
And when he completed his return by burying Benny Feilhaber's cross in the 50th minute on Sunday, Opara ran along the end line, arms extended at his sides, a stunned look on his face.
“I guess it was a little overwhelming, all the emotions that hit,” he said after the match. “I'm out here. I scored a goal, and for so long I didn't know what to expect. For that moment to happen – it was actually a little bittersweet because I wanted the win, but I'm moving forward.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.