The trade came Monday, but Ike Opara’s exit from the Sporting Kansas City roster was put into motion two months ago, hours after the conclusion of the 2018 season.
Opara walked into Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes’ office and requested a raise. If the team was unable to meet that desire, he asked that Vermes consider trading him. The first request is not unusual, and Vermes says he didn’t have much of an issue with the latter one, either.
It’s the response that prompted the eventual finality of Opara’s tenure in Kansas City. The details from that meeting were publicized, and Vermes insists it didn’t come from his end.
That prompted what occurred Monday — Sporting KC traded Opara to Minnesota for up to $1 million in targeted allocation money.
“I’m very disappointed in the way this was handled by his agent,” Vermes said in a phone conversation. “I keep a lot of stuff close to the vest when it comes to the players on this team. I’m very protective of our environment. The frustration I have is this created a situation (in which) because of the public nature of it, there weren’t a lot of choices for us. At some point, we had to sit back and think of the best solution for the club. This is what that solution is. It’s unfortunate.”
This isn’t a stance for how Sporting KC should conduct its business. It’s an explanation for how it does conduct business.
The club was essentially left with three options with Opara, the former MLS defender of the year: Give him the raise, trade him or preserve the status quo. Vermes considered all three in play as Opara departed his office. But once the preferences were made public, Sporting KC’s front office eliminated the first option from the list. It did not want to set a precedent.
Vermes is known to be a stubborn negotiator, a technical director unwilling to risk the long-term for the benefit of the short-term. Two years ago, he gave up on acquiring a player because of a difference of less than $50,000. In this case, the fear was giving Opara more money — the best short-term move — would prompt future agencies to broadcast requests.
“We had a discussion to see if we could make this happen,” Vermes said of giving Opara a raise on the approximately $350,000 he is due in 2019. “Our statement and comment to the player was that we had some targets that we had already identified prior to the end of the season that we were going to work on first, and if there were monies left over, we’d be willing to have a conversation. But it went public immediately, and that changed the way this would be dealt with.”
Opara played 61 games over the last two seasons, though he was set to be the third highest-paid center back on the roster. The club brought in Andreu Fontas on a $1 million contract last summer, nearly three times Opara’s salary, and Fontas served as Opara’s backup. Opara signed a three-year contract last winter, coming off his league defender of the year honor.
Earlier this offseason, Vermes told members of the media he preferred to keep Opara in 2019. He voiced the sentiment to MLS teams that called asking about Opara’s availability. When one team executive began a conversation, “I hear you’re looking to trade Ike,” Vermes replied, “No, but make an offer, and we’ll listen.”
Asked earlier this month if he was concerned how Opara might handle neither of his requests being met, Vermes said, “Not at all. Zero concern whatsoever.” Opara is a popular player among the team, a veteran who had worked tirelessly to return from injury on multiple occasions. Besides, the team had received only one real offer for him when it broke for training camp this month, an offer Vermes framed as “ridiculous.”
Sporting intentionally set the market for Opara high, and it was content to keep him if nobody met the asking price. Earlier trades this offseason involving center backs only reinforced the club’s position.
On Monday, Minnesota returned with a new offer. It will be a clear subtraction from the short-term prognosis for Sporting KC, which will navigate a congested early schedule with Fontas and Botond Barath competing for time alongside Matt Besler on the back line. The two have combined for one career MLS start.
For more than a year, Sporting KC has been eying the 2019 season, positioning itself to make a serious run in the CONCACAF Champions League without sacrificing its MLS standing. The club has added depth at every spot on the field, hoping to rotate two full rosters in the initial month as it rotates between the two schedules. Opara’s departure is an impedance to that blueprint.
Vermes’ willingness to part with Opara, therefore, was a look toward the long-term. A year ago, after trading striker Dom Dwyer for allocation money, the team signed Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croizet to revamp the team’s attack. At least initially, Vermes was mum on how the team plans to spend the allocation money. But it must be used or it will be forfeited. Per MLS rules, it cannot simply be pocketed by the team.
And so the cycle begins anew.