Ike Opara - Minnesota United - raises scarf

Minnesota United made yet another big addition in the back on Monday night, acquiring center back Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for $900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money.

I was enjoying a few blissful minutes away from the internet when the deal was announced and only found out about the trade via text from a high-level source at another club. That person wasn’t kind to the Loons.

“$900K for Opara might be a worse deal than what Cincy paid for Hagglund,” they wrote, referencing the trade in which FC Cincinnati sent $300,000 in General Allocation Money and the No. 1 spot in the allocation order to Toronto FC in exchange for Nick Hagglund. Many sources around MLS panned that deal when it went through last week.

None of the other technical staffers I spoke to about the Opara deal went quite that far, but they were unanimous in their belief that Minnesota overpaid for the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year. Not that they don’t think Opara will upgrade the Loons’ defense. If he stays healthy, they’re fully confident he will. They were more concerned about giving up so much for a soon-to-be 30-year-old with a long injury history.

It's unlikely that will be the only outlay for Opara, either. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported in December that Opara wanted a raise from the $342,916 he made in 2018. It’s unclear whether Minnesota will give him a pay bump; if they do, the sources said Opara could conceivably turn from a $1.25 million player to a $1.7 or $1.8 million player when combining his 2019 salary and the TAM given up acquiring him.

That’s a huge chunk of change for a club like Minnesota, who will reportedly send an additional $100,000 in TAM to SKC if they qualify for the playoffs this year. So, how did the Loons arrive here? Why were they willing to shell out so much for Opara?

Let’s dive in.

Must-win? Must-spend

It’s no secret that Minnesota GM Manny Lagos and head coach Adrian Heath are both under pressure this season. Both are in the final year of their contracts, and Minnesota have underwhelmed in their first two MLS seasons. That's not to mention the added attention that comes with Allianz Field opening this spring.

That pressure has shaped Minnesota’s offseason. The Loons have spent big to overhaul a defensive unit that gave up a whopping 141 goals in their first two seasons in the league, more than any other team in that period. They signed center midfielder Jan Gregus from FC Copenhagen for a transfer fee sources pegged at over $2.5 million and used TAM to acquire longtime Seattle Sounders defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso and French right back Romain Metanire. A source told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday that they’re searching for a starting-caliber goalkeeper this winter, as well. If they sign a new backstop, the Loons’ first-choice defensive group will likely only feature two players – left back Francisco Calvo and either Michael Boxall or Brent Kallman at center back – that were on their 2018 roster.

The moves all carry a significant amount of risk and/or a hefty price. Opara, as mentioned, has a lengthy injury history. Alonso is 33 and hasn’t started more than 24 games due to injuries of his own in three of the last four seasons. Some sources believe the club paid too much for Gregus. There are no guarantees that arrivals from abroad will take to MLS.

There are also hints of Orlando’s 2017-18 offseason going on in the Twin Cities. Jason Kreis felt the pressure last winter and made a series of expensive, impressive-looking moves to overhaul the Lions roster. Orlando were declared the offseason winners by many pundits. A few months later, Kreis was out as head coach and the club was stuck in a months-long death-spiral. Having leveraged their resources last year, they’ve been largely unable to rebuild this offseason.

The sources noted that Minnesota haven’t made as drastic an overhaul as Orlando did last winter, but several pointed to parallels between these Loons and those Lions. Both entered the offseason with club brass on the hot seat. Both took big, risky swings. Sources think both overspent.

If everything goes well for Minnesota, it’s not hard to imagine them in the playoffs. It wasn’t hard to imagine Orlando there this time last year, either. The Lions’ high-priced bets didn’t pay off. We don’t yet know whether Minnesota’s will – only that Lagos and Heath felt they had to make them. It’s easy to see why. If the moves come good, they’ll be worth the price.

A wild new market

The other factor that must be considered when evaluating any MLS trade is that the market has become harder to read. Spending $900,000 in TAM to acquire Opara might end up being an overreach, but Minnesota – and the rest of MLS – are operating in a trade market without many clear benchmarks for what a player is worth.

The sources MLSsoccer.com spoke to said that the Opara price was likely set by Cincinnati spending up to $850,000 in allocation money to acquire center back Kendall Waston from Vancouver earlier this offseason. Waston and Opara are similar players, and, while Waston doesn’t have Opara’s injury history, the new Loon is over a year younger and made roughly half as much as the Costa Rican in 2018. Considering what Cincinnati paid for Waston, $900,000 for Opara doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that Cincinnati are working with more allocation money than any other club. Expansion teams are given far more GAM than any of their counterparts, meaning Cincinnati ostensibly has a little more wiggle room with regards their roster spending as opposed to a now-established team like Minnesota.

Minnesota did acquire $300,000 in TAM from LAFC last summer as part of a larger trade package for striker Christian Ramirez. The sources said that money likely factored into the Loons’ willingness to pay so much for Opara.

But the broader point here is that, according to sources, few have a very good feel for the intra-MLS trade market. Is Opara worth twice the price that Cincinnati paid for US men's national team left back Greg Garza? If Jonathan Campbell is traded for a fourth-round pick, how is Hagglund moved for the equivalent of roughly $600,000 in Allocation Money? The sources don’t really have answers to those questions. The trade market is muddled, which allows teams like SKC, who sources said didn’t necessarily need to move Opara, to more easily demand high prices from more desperate clubs like Minnesota.