As Ike Opara drove to the airport Wednesday afternoon, he wondered aloud what the next two days might entail. The people he might see. The restaurants he would visit. The reaction he wanted to receive.
To be fair, an interview prompted the contemplation. And what you should know first, he says, is that the responses have been altered by one key element.
It has been seven months since Sporting Kansas City traded Opara to Minnesota in exchange for up to $1 million in allocation money. Seven months since his request for a pay raise was rebuffed in favor of a departure. Seven months since he opened his phone and researched when he would be returning to face his former team — which, for the record, will be Thursday at Children’s Mercy Park in front of ESPN cameras.
“As the months have passed by, I’ve had different emotions and thoughts on it,” Opara said in a phone interview with The Star. “At the end of the day, would I have loved for it to work out in Kansas City? Yeah. That’s as real and honest of an answer as I can give.
“But ultimately it didn’t, and that’s fine. I am happy in Minnesota, helping build something that’s hopefully really special.”
The trade derived from a conversation last November, Opara requesting a raise in a private meeting with Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes. He was the third-highest paid centerback on the team, earning just 35% of the salary of Andreu Fontas, his backup.
After the request was publicized, Vermes feared granting the application would set a precedent: Broadcast demands and earn more money.
“It became a situation where it seemed like we didn’t have other opportunities to fix it,” Vermes said.
From his end, Opara said, “I’m a man, and so I deal with the consequences or rewards of every decision that I make. I just wanted to feel, whether it was valued or ... I won’t get into specifics. But I was comfortable moving forward with whatever happened. Obviously Peter chose the route that he did, and there are no grudges at all. I’ve got the utmost respect for him, and vice versa. I know if I ever need anything, he’d be there to help me, and vice versa. In that regards, we are all good.”
Time, he says, has provided a new sense of normalcy.
Quite the opposite for his former club.
The preseason trade sent Opara from a perennial playoff participant to a team without a postseason run in its brief history. But on Thursday, Minnesota arrives in Kansas City occupying second place in the Western Conference. With Opara shoring up the center of the defense — and firmly planted in the conversation for the MLS defender of the year award — Minnesota has conceded the third fewest goals in the West.
Sporting has yet to recover from his subtraction. It left a gaping hole in the defense alongside Matt Besler, showcased nowhere more often than the scoreline. A team predicated on sound defense has allowed the third most goals in the West. Its 45 goals against are tied for the most during an eight-year playoff streak, with eight games left on the schedule.
In making the case for Opara’s value, one might start there, though he says, “Seeing some of the downs they’ve had hasn’t made me feel good.”
The organization is still comprised of some of his closest friends. He keeps in contact with them regularly. They rarely even talk soccer.
In June, Sporting traveled to face Minnesota in the U.S. Open Cup. Opara sat out.
But a day before the game, he drove to the team hotel to catch up with old teammates. He met Vermes in the lobby, too. He plans to see some friends during his trip to Kansas City.
Playing against some of them will provide a new emotion.
“It’s going to be weird. Honestly, it is,” Opara said. “When I left San Jose (in 2012) and went to Sporting, I wanted to beat them, almost a hatred kind of thing. Now I’ve got mixed emotions. Obviously I want to win the game. But there’s excitement; there’s nerves; there’s anxiety. I think finally returning and playing this game and getting it out of the way in a sense, moving forward should be easier. But it’s going to be weird for sure.”