KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Three days ahead of Sporting Kansas City's season opener, Ike Opara still wasn't sure if he'd be in the lineup – especially on the turf of Seattle's Century Link Field (7 PM ET; FS1).
But after losing most of his last two seasons to injury, Opara hopes to play a significant role in Sporting's central defense whenever and wherever he gets the chance.
“I'm always ready,” Opara said on Thursday, during the club's annual kickoff event. “Even the days that I'm not, I convince myself that I am. I've never looked at it as, 'Am I ready or am I not?' I just do it. Hopefully, I do it well when I play.”
Opara has yet to make it past April in either of his past two seasons – going down with a broken right ankle in March 2014 and a ruptured left Achilles tendon last April – and struggled with injury in San Jose before coming to Sporting in 2013.
All of that's in the past, he said Thursday, and he can't afford to look back.
“I know people say I'm always hurt, and all of those things,” he said. “At the end of the day, I'm not even bothered by it, just because I know the time and the effort that I've put into trying to get back out there and trying to take care of myself. Some of them were unlucky. Some of them were dumb mistakes on my part. I think early in my career, I tried to play through some things, and it set me back.
“I know how hard I work, and I'm not going to let other people label me as 'injury-prone' or however. Whether that may be the case or not, for me, I'm not trying to worry about what other people say. I know what I have to do.”
One thing he has to do now is compete for minutes with new arrival Nuno Andre Coelho – and, Opara was quick to add, with Homegrown defender Kevin Ellis, who played far taller than his 5-foot-8 frame and led all MLS defenders with five goals across all competitions in 2015.
Then again, even when the starting job was his going into a season – as was the case last year, when he had two goals and was a ferocious aerial presence at both ends of the pitch – Opara has played as though he's trying to win the spot from someone else.
“I'm going to go full throttle when I get the chance,” he said. “I've never held back, for better or worse. At this point in my career, seven years in, I'm not going to change just because of injuries. For me, it's kind of why I am who I am today, and where I've gotten to. That's my mentality. If I change now, there's really no point in me playing any more. I just go day by day and stick with that mentality.”
Opara provided a small scare to Sporting's fans during the preseason Desert Diamond Cup in Tucson, Ariz., when he went down during the final group-stage match and had to be subbed off with a sore left hamstring. It was a minor tweak, though, and Opara insists he's good to go for the season opener if needed.
“I knew pretty soon that it wasn't anything big,” he said. “It was just one of those things. Something's going to happen when you've been out for a while. We were doing a pretty good job of monitoring it. I was only going to play the half, so it was only five minutes short.”
Opara does come into this season ahead of where he was early in 2015, too. He was cleared to play last November and likely would have seen action had Sporting not fallen in a wrenching 11-round shootout to eventual champions Portland in the play-in round of the Audi MLS Cup playoffs.
“He was that close,”He actually took the offseason to get fit for the upcoming preseason, where last year he didn't have the ability to do that, because he was still rehabbing his foot.”
And while he acknowledges the frustrations and concerns inherent in sustaining a second straight season-ending injuries, Opara said he has remained optimistic and determined to enjoy being able to play again.
“There's not much worse it's going to get. There's nothing on the field that's going to surprise me or catch me off guard. There's not going to be days or games that bring me down, because I've been through times I felt like hell, just because of the rehab process. So just being able to enjoy the game is big.
Not that there aren't periodic down times, Opara said.
“The 'no' aspect is when you're not waking up feeling great, or you know in the back of your mind, 'I'm feeling sore, so am I vulnerable to something? Do I need to fight through it?' There are a lot of mind games with yourself that you try not to play,” he said. “Unfortunately, you're human. So you think about some things. But just being able to make sure I'm ready on game days is where my mentality is.”