Ike Opara – Minnesota United – tight shot

BLAINE, Minn. – When Ike Opara heads into this Sunday’s (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, TVAS, TSN4) Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs game against the LA Galaxy, he’ll carry a new accolade: 2019 MLS Defender of the Year.

It’s also likely that his matchup with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the owner of 52 goals and 17 assists in 56 MLS games, will decide the first-round clash at Allianz FIeld. But Opara, who won the same year-end accolade in 2017 with Sporting Kansas City, isn’t deterred by the task at hand.

“There’s nothing to fear and you really just go in there to compete,” Opara said. “Give it your all and see where we end up in 90 minutes. I think that better be the mindset of everyone on our team.”

It won’t just be Ibrahimovic, of course, as LA’s offense includes a cadre of options that includes Cristian Pavon, Uriel Antuna and Romain Alessandrini. It also won’t just be Opara containing them, as Vito Mannone is up for the Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year award. His partner in central defense, Michael Boxall, made the Opta MLS Best XI for the 2019 season, and holding midfielder Ozzie Alonso has ignited much of the Loons’ turnaround since joining from the Seattle Sounders.

But there’s also a magnetic draw as Opara and Ibrahimovic, heavyweights at their respective positions, ready for battle. The 30-year-old knows what to expect, too.

“He’s a huge guy, so when the ball’s in the air, he’s a threat,” Opara said of Ibrahimovic. “You just try not to allow him time and space and do as best as you can. I think we match up well. You have to be really cognizant of him and you ... hope that he doesn’t have a good day in front of the net. It’s about limiting his opportunities.”

Should Opara emerge on top, it’d mark his latest accomplishment in a Loons’ jersey since joining in the winter from SKC. He’s fortified a Minnesota defense that conceded 141 goals combined from 2017-18, compared to the West’s third-fewest (43) this season.

For one, Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath is embracing the matchup. Doing so could result in a matchup with Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC on Oct. 24 (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS) in the Western Conference semifinals.

“We’ve spoken to both of the center backs and fullbacks,” Heath said, “You’ve got one of the iconic players of this generation to play against this weekend. He’s scored 500 goals. It’s incredible. This guy’s a superstar player. They should embrace playing against it."