2017 MLS Defender of the Year: Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ike Opara went from the brink of early retirement to the pinnacle of MLS' corps of defenders, and there's no way he's walking away now, not with things still to prove to doubters and supporters alike.

“You can't be satisfied just by one season. You can't be satisfied with what's taken place,” Opara told reporters earlier this month, shortly before being named the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year. “For me, I want more. Having a taste of success – once you get a taste of success, you want more, just like you want more money.

“So there's a little bit of greed to it, but at the very least I'd like to stay consistent.”

The Sporting Kansas City center back's story is familiar to anyone who follows the league by now: broken ankle early in the 2014 season, ruptured Achilles early in 2015, both injuries coming after promising starts to those years. Opara thought seriously about giving up the game after the second injury, but came back to play a career-high 25 games in 2016.

Even so, Opara heard the talk that he was fragile, that he couldn't put together two injury-free seasons in a row – and it made him angry.

“For me, I think I've always had the ability,” he said. “I just needed the consistency, the rhythm – the rhythm of games – and I made a promise to myself last offseason that I'm going to switch the narrative of what has been, so to speak, my career.

“I just kind of went in with an 'F you' attitude, to be honest. I added a lot of names to the list of guys – of people I wanted to prove wrong, and that'll keep continuing, no matter what. You can't rest on your laurels of what you've done, period. But in general, I wanted to control what I had left of my career.”

Fueled by that attitude – and the commitment to keeping himself healthy – Opara played in 30 league matches this past season, helping Sporting to 11 clean sheets and scoring three times (including his AT&T MLS Goal of the Year-nominated “Ike on a bike”) at the other end of the pitch.

That's what he expected of himself.

“I think I go in with an honest evaluation of myself and what I can do, and I don't think that I shoot for the stars, that I shoot for something that's not possible,” he said. “But I think that I've always trusted myself that I'm focused and doing everything that I need to do, that I have the ability that I can be up there with the best defenders in the league, and I've always thought that.

“And so, it just finally came together and I got a good routine down of what I wanted to do, heading into the offseason last year. Obviously, it worked its wonders.”

Opara's commitment made the difference, manager Peter Vermes said.

“The fact that he got through the whole season without a major injury is a testament to the routine that he was doing off the field over the course of an entire season,” Vermes said. “I think he took a very professional approach to his everyday routine and that part, I think, served him extremely well to get through the whole season and always be available.

“I never doubted the level at which he could play, because if you look at the level in the other two seasons where he actually got knocked out because of season-ending injuries, he was on par to play the same way. The difference is that his routine, the way he took care of himself – and we managed him a little differently in certain games, where we played turf and things like that. We didn't necessarily put him into those games. I think that helped him extremely well. But when we were trying to get him [from San Jose in 2013], this is what we expected from him.”

The snubs list: How Sporting KC's Ike Opara used doubters to fuel his fire - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/image_landscape/s3/images/Ike-Opara.jpg

Still, the year wasn't without its scary moments – or one moment in particular, in extra time of a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup quarterfinal against FC Dallas on July 11. That's when Maxi Urruti went up for a bicycle kick – only to find Opara's head with his foot instead.

Urruti got a red card. Opara got a trip off the pitch on a stretcher, unconscious and with a concussion and a ruptured right eardrum. And while he bears no ill will toward the Dallas striker, who was visibly shaken and contrite after the incident, Opara was not the same for a while – and it showed.

“The concussion wasn't what I was worried about after the fact. It was the eardrum rupture that threw me off, more than the head, for about a month and a half. So I had to run around at times feeling like I was off balance or whatnot, and I couldn't hear out of that ear. So it was an interesting time of the season, but I've gone through enough that it wasn't going to stop me.”

Though 2017 was the best season in Opara's career, he still collected enough snubs to keep him fired up for 2018.

Opara is still waiting for his first US national team call-up, despite his strong league form – and his omission from the MLS All-Star roster this past season, even though he led most midseason ballots for Defender of the Year, prompted this incredulous tweet at the time:

Opara just smiles and shrugs when asked about the omissions.

“Add 'em to the list,” Opara said. “They don't want to believe, that's OK. I'm just going to keep doing my thing and – impose my will, I guess, when I get inside the white lines.”