Depth at centerback has been a concern for a few seasons, but Sporting Kansas City believes it has solved that problem with the addition of Ike Opara.
It certainly worked out well two weeks ago at New England, where Sporting KC completed the second of three straight shutouts. Opara, who was acquired from the San Jose Earthquakes in a December trade, stepped in for MLS defender of the year Matt Besler in a 0-0 draw against the Revolution.
“It certainly helped me feel more settled,” Opara said. “Obviously, the more games you get, the more settled you feel. It was nice to get in there (against New England) and get a little run. Hopefully, I can build off that looking toward the future.”
Opara went back to the bench last Saturday in Sporting’s 2-0 win against the Montreal Impact, but expect him to become a semi-regular fixture as the season moves forward with the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title defense and CONCACAF Champions League on the horizon.
“It’s great to have that early look at this point in the season, especially as we’re moving towards the three competitions and knowing that we’re going to have to put different guys out there at different times,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “Already knowing what he brings to the table is very helpful.”
Vermes rattled off a few stats — Opara was 12 for 12 on aerial duels and 38 for 38 on one-on-one duels — that paint a picture of a rock-solid club debut.
“I did very well with the individual battles,” Opara said. “All in all, especially with the conditions, it was a pretty good debut. I don’t think I really got noticed and, as a centerback, that’s perfectly fine.”
The club’s starting centerback pair, Besler and Aurelien Collin, were both MLS Best XI selections after Sporting KC allowed a league-low 27 goals last season.
Reserve Lawrence Olum played well in spot duty, including a start in the Open Cup championship game against the Seattle Sounders, but he’s also the top backup for Oriol Rosell at defensive midfielder.
Meanwhile, Opara provides a another backup player and with more MLS experience — something Sporting KC has lacked the last few seasons — after appearing in 35 games, including 22 starts, during three seasons in San Jose.
“(Olum) has still got some great value for us in that position as well, so I feel pretty good that we’ve got cover in that area at all,” Vermes said.
When the Opara trade was announced, Vermes said Sporting KC coveted him leading up to the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Instead, the Earthquakes nabbed Opara, who played three seasons at Wake Forest, third overall and Sporting KC took forward Teal Bunbury one selection later, but final he landed in Kansas City.
“This is a great place to be regardless of positions or whoever might be in your spot,” Opara said. “This is the place I wanted to be, so I’m excited to be here. I was looking for a fresh start.”
Obviously, the mutual affection lingered even after three years.
Now, Opara simply hopes to help Sporting KC win games — in whatever competition he gets his minutes.
“Regardless of how it’s looked at from the outside, we always want to win no matter what competition we’re playing in,” Opara said. “I’ve never played in CONCACAF, but I don’t think an MLS team has ever won Champions League. From that standpoint, it’s a big deal. When I was with San Jose, we always wanted to win Open Cup and tried hard there. The bottom line is we want to win championships.”