As a young player, Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara was a regular on the United States U-23 and U-20 national teams. But while many of his teammates progressed to the next natural step — the U.S. men’s national team — Opara stayed behind, injuries derailing his advancement.
His career got back on track in 2017.
And he’s back in the U.S. men’s national team picture in 2018.
Opara received a call-up to join the Americans for the annual January training camp in Carson, Calif. It’s his first career call-up to the senior team.
“I’d say early on, this was always a goal of mine, but in the later years, I had some things I had to deal with, so it left my radar for the most part,” Opara said. “So I’m grateful to be included and to have the chance.”
The camp opens Wednesday and concludes on Jan. 28 with a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Thirty players received the call, and half of them have never appeared in a senior national team match. The camp roster includes few veterans, leaving Graham Zusi and Matt Besler absent.
Opara, 28, was the MLS defender of the year in 2017. Along with Besler, he anchored the center of a Sporting KC defense that allowed only 29 goals, eight fewer than any other team in the league.
His value showed in the statistics. Opara was on the field for all 11 Sporting KC shutouts. The team was 0-3-1 with him out of the lineup.
It was as much about health as production. Opara had never started more than 16 matches in a season before he made a career-high 30 starts last summer.
He suffered a chondral defect in his ankle in 2014, a rare injury that ended his season. When he returned in 2015, he was playing in peak form over the initial month of the year, but he ruptured his Achilles while reaching for a header on a corner kick. That season was done, too, and Opara contemplated retirement.
Instead, he returned. As the best in MLS.
And the U.S. national team took notice. Opara received the alert via email in December that he would be part of the mix.
“It makes you look back, and I was reflective of the last few years and proud to get where I am,” Opara said. “I won’t overlook the call-up, but I won’t overthink it either. I just want to enjoy it.”
It comes an an unusual time.
The U.S. holds its January camp annually, but in 2018, there’s no immediate payoff for making a strong impression. The Americans whiffed on qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. U.S. Soccer will elect a new president next month to replace Sunil Gulati, who will not run for re-election. And while Dave Sarachan is coaching the team, it’s on an interim basis. The new president — whoever it turns out to be — will play a strong rule in selecting the new coach.
“I think with no World Cup and questions about the future of the program, you kind of have to alter your expectations,” Opara said. “The environment seems a little gray. But I think the biggest thing for me that I’m going in with is just enjoying the experience and trying to learn whatever I can at that level of play.”