In an era in which professional athletes deny tracking their statistics, Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara is a refreshing contrast. From his center back position, he expects to score once every six games, he says.
But for all of the accolades thrown his way in 2017 — with some national websites dubbing him a mid-season defender of the year candidate — his scoring column remained empty through 14 matches.
The first finally arrived Saturday. And it did so in unexpected fashion.
Better known for his ability in the air, Opara instead found the back of the net on a 30-yard strike, the precursor in a 3-0 Sporting KC victory on Saturday in Children’s Mercy Park against visiting Minnesota United FC.
“You take them any way you can get them,” Opara said. “I imagined it would be a header or set piece, but I just go out there and take the opportunity.”
Opara ignited an afternoon of firsts. Jimmy Medranda added his first goal of 2017 9 minutes after halftime, and Saad Abdul-Salaam supplied the first of his career moments before the final whistle. It all resulted in in Sporting KC extending its home unbeaten streak to 16 matches. Sporting has not lost an MLS match inside Children’s Mercy Park since May 27, 2016.
That Opara put his shot on target was no accident — even with its distance. Opara said he chided teammates all week after Sporting KC put only two of its 25 shots on goal in a shutout in Colorado. Opara’s tally on Saturday came a minute before halftime on Sporting Kansas City's 17th shot of the afternoon.
“I’ll tell you the feeling at halftime would’ve been a lot different if we had come in 0-0,” said Sporting KC captain Matt Besler, who was released from his United States men’s national team duty for Saturday’s match. Besler will return to the national team on Sunday.
In reality, Sporting KC (7-4-4) never really had a reason to feel threatened Saturday. It dominated the opening half — holding Minnesota without a shot on target before finishing off its eighth shutout of the season.
It deserved the Opara goal in first-half extra time, but the manner in which it came qualified as unusual. Without a visible passing lane, Opara struck a grounder through the Minnesota defense, a shot that took keeper Bobby Shuttleworth by such surprise that he didn’t even flinch.
“Obviously I was looking to find someone’s feet,” Opara said. “Once all the lanes were closed, my focus was just to hit the target and put it on frame.”
The second goal required two shots on frame. Well, two across the line even.
Sporting forward Soony Saad hit the crossbar on the initial shot, and the ball deflected across the line. The referees missed it, and Medranda headed home the rebound.
“I saw (Saad’s shot) go in, but the referee didn’t call it, so I kept playing,” Medranda said.
Abdul-Salaam followed with his first career goal. In sum, after being shut out in back to back matches on the road, a return home cured the swoon. Sporting KC has unleashed 52 shots over the past two matches. It played Saturday without midfielder Roger Espinoza (red card suspension) and defender Graham Zusi (national team duty). Forward Dom Dwyer, who has missed the last two matches, entered the match off the bench in the second half.
This time, the offense fared just fine without his scoring contribution.
“I believe that goal scoring usually comes by committee, and today it was exactly that,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Everybody was busy in and around the (goal). You can’t just rely on one or two guys to score. It all comes down to the movement of players.”
Sporting Kansas City 3, Minnesota United 0
MINNESOTA: Bobby Shuttleworth; Marc Burch (Justin Davis, 64th), Brent Kallman, Jermaine Taylor, Jerome Thiesson; Ibson, Miguel Ibarra (Rasmus Schuller, 8th), Kevin Molino, Collen Warner; Ismaila Jome (Bashkim Kadrii, 64th), Christian Ramirez.
KANSAS CITY: Tim Melia; Saad Abdul-Salaam, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, Seth Sinovic; Latif Blessing (Daniel Salloi, 75th), Benny Feilhaber, Jimmy Medranda (Soni Mustivar, 67th), Ilie Sanchez; Gerso Fernandes, Soony Saad (Dom Dwyer, 62nd).
Kansas City: 1, Opara, 1 (Besler), 48th minute. 2, Medranda, 1, 54th. 3, Abdul-Salaam, 1, 87th.
Shots on goal
Minnesota: Jome (not retreating), 7th; Warner (unsporting behavior), 23rd; Shuttleworth (time wasting), 43rd.
Kansas City: Feilhaber (unsporting behavior), 12th; Melia (unsporting behavior), 44th.
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez.
Assistant referee: Jeff Hosking.
Assistant referee: Danny Thornberry.
Fourth official: Allen Chapman.