KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Two years after seriously contemplating retirement from professional soccer, Ike Opara is back to the form that had people talking about MLS All-Star bids and a possible call-up to the US national team.
Opara's not talking about those things yet, and shrugs off any talk that comes up – but the 28-year-old is clearly in solid form in central defense for a Sporting Kansas City side that has conceded a league-low two goals through five matches in 2017.
“It's been fun to only focus on soccer and myself,” Opara told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “I can't complain.”
One thing that's helped is that Opara got to spend the offseason working on his fitness, rather than working back from injuries that ended his 2014 and 2015 seasons almost before they even started. A broken right ankle took him out of play in March 2014, just three matches into that season, and his comeback bid in 2015 ended that April, after six games, when he ruptured his left Achilles tendon.
That second injury left Opara pondering a life after the game – but he put those thoughts aside and came back last season to record career highs of 25 appearances, 16 starts and 1,542 minutes – along with all three of his career assists.
“I remember when he did his Achilles and he was thinking about what he was doing,” manager Peter Vermes said on Wednesday. “I said, 'You realize that if you decide to retire right now in your mind, you still have to come back from this injury in everyday life. So what's the difference between retiring and having to do rehab, and staying in the profession that you're good at and having to do rehab? That's why no decision should be made right now. Everything should be based on once you get over the shock of this and you get ready for the next step, what do you want to do?'
“You need to do that on a clear head, and I think he had a chance to do that on a clear head, and he made the right decision.”
Building on that successful return to the game – and with Nuno Andre Coelho no longer in the central defense corps after one injury-plagued season at Children's Mercy Park – Opara used the time between the 2016 and 2017 teams to pare off some weight.
“It was a little worrying at first,” he said. “You expect center backs to be big and hulking all the time, so dropping weight was a little weird and scary for me at first. But I feel the payoff with that, just from my body when I'm running around and from the results and success that we've had. It's been for me, a great change.
The big weight loss doesn't sound all that big at first, though.
“Five to eight pounds,” Opara said, “which for me is pretty drastic. I remember being at 180, 185, and I've been as low as 174. It's just diet and I the work I put in off the field. I probably have a few things still that I shouldn't, but it's all moderation.”
Vermes, who was the then-Wizards' defensive anchor when they won the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup in 2000, said going lean can help even athletes who – like Opara – aren't carrying too much extra weight in the first place.
“When you're already fit and you do that, it's huge,” he said. “That's not just the back line. That's any player. When you're fit and you shed that kind of weight, it gives you a different mentality, too. You feel more confident about yourself and how you feel and how you recover, all those other things.”
The change hasn't taken away any of Opara's aerial ability, as he showed on set-piece defense in last weekend's 3-1 home victory over Colorado, and his 1-v-1 game on the ground has been a strength for Sporting as well.
“I've always kind of licked my chops at 1-on-1,” Opara said. “I think that's how I've always been as a defender. “I relish those moments, and there's not one guy in this league that I don't want to play against. This league's getting more and more talented players, and for me that's exciting because I like to measure myself against the best.
“I look forward to those challenges, and so far in the early part of the season, I've been doing well with them.”
It has to be asked, then: What about the challenge to match up against a new set of opponents, wearing a US kit, either this summer in the CONCACAF Gold Cup or as part of the 2018 January camp?
“I'd love to be up there, but it's not on my radar at the moment,” he said. “I just think that I've got too much to prove before I can consider that. Obviously, putting together a full season again would be a good start, but I just want to be one of the leaders on our back line.
“For me, that's all I'm shooting for. Anything else is kind of icing on the cake to me.”