MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

MLS Defender of the Year race: Ike Opara the current favorite?

Ike Opara - Minnesota United FC - Close up

This race for the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year is tight, with more than a few deserving candidates on playoff teams. 

There's still a month left to play, jockeying and shoulder barging up and down the ballot won't stop, but here's how the race is shaping up coming down the home stretch. 

Honorable mentions: It was difficult to leave Maxime Chanot off the top five, ditto for Jack Elliott and Eddie Segura. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been very good again, while Robin Jansson and Romain Metanire have had strong debut seasons in the league. Ryan Hollingshead, and the rest of the FC Dallas backline, come within a shout, too. Ditto for Kelvin Leerdam and Steve Birnbaum
Wingbacks were evaluated on a case-by-case basis, leaving Anton Tinnerholm and Julian Gressel out of the discussion given they often play more as wide midfielders than defenders. 

5. Kai Wagner

Signed with minimal fanfare, Wagner has been integral to Philadelphia's success in 2019. 

The left back has eight assists in 25 appearances, tops for a defender. He also has 28 chances created from open play, second-most for a defender, and has won the fifth-most tackles (40). 

Wagner typifies the Union's success this year: An undervalued player, plucked from the German third tier, has been one of the top left backs in MLS this season, helping push Philly to the top of the Eastern Conference.

4. Florian Jungwirth

Playing as a defender in Matias Almeyda's man-marking system isn't easy and Jungwirth is the most important defensive piece, often playing as the lone free libero in the team while the other nine outfield players are tracking their marks across the field. Jungwirth is regularly the lone cover for the rest of the team. 

Jungwirth is fifth among defenders in interceptions (47) and sixth in passes (1,266). 

3. Walker Zimmerman

The defensive anchor of the league's best team will always be somewhere on the ballot for Defender of the Year. 

Zimmerman, and center back partner Eddie Segura, have been excellent for the runaway Supporters' Shield leaders. Their pyrotechnic attack gets most of the headlines, led by Carlos Vela, but the team has quietly conceded a league-fewest 30 goals this year. 

Though he's only found the back of the net once this year (a thunderous strike from distance!), Zimmerman is an aerial threat on set pieces and has the fifth-most aerials won (81) by defenders.  

2. Miles Robinson

What a breakout 2019 has been for Robinson. After making just three MLS starts across his first two years, Robinson has been perhaps the most vital Atlanta United starter not named Josef.

The 22-year-old, just called into the US national team for the first time, is fourth among defenders in aerials won (83), fifth in duels won (165), third in duels success (67%), fifth in passes (1,374) and third in interceptions (51). Furthermore, he is integral to the team's tactical shift, which has sparked their return to form. His pace and comfortability defending in space (a la last year's Defender of the Year winner Aaron Long) has allowed Atlanta to play aggressively again while he's strong enough to deal with target forwards. 

Don't just take my word for it. Here's head coach Frank de Boer on Robinson:

“A lot of time we play one-against-one in the back and you have to have guys who win the duels and have speed. He has both. He’s crucial,” De Boer said last week. “That’s key for the system that we play. I think that’s also why he’s been selected for the national team, because those key moments when he will step in."

He slots ahead of Zimmerman because of that tactical importance.

1. Ike Opara

Much was made of the Minnesota United's cadre of defensive reinforcements this offseason, the crown jewel of which Opara. The 2017 MLS Defender of the Year has been every bit as good as advertised. 

Minnesota are close to clinching their first ever Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff berth and after conceding 141 goals in their first two seasons in the league, Opara and co. have given up 37 over their first 28 games this year, good for 5th in the league. He's fourth among defenders in clearances (129) and ninth in aerials won (68).

Something unquantifiable? The culture change he helped chauffeur and playoff pedigree.