Sporting KC

After contemplating retirement, Sporting KC defender Ike Opara nears return

Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara.
Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara. Special to The Star

Ike Opara sat in the Sporting Kansas City locker room after a match in mid-April, his hands partially covering the blank stare across his face. A somber scene encapsulated a fear that his 2015 season was over. Already.

To make matters worse, he had spent the previous year working his way back from a severe ankle injury that cost him the majority of the 2014 season, and while the early results on his comeback were glowing, in one leap, it was done.

Six games into the return, Opara felt a twitch in his Achilles' tendon as he jumped for a header during a match against Real Salt Lake, and the resulting pain rendered him motionless on the grass.

Over the ensuing few hours, days, even weeks — after doctors confirmed an Achilles' tendon rupture — Opara thought back over his rehab process in 2014. He wasn't sure he was up for another round in 2015.

"I wanted to retire," he said. "That's what I wanted to do.

"That was definitely on my mind. It was there."

How seriously was he considering it? Opara says he isn't quite so sure.

But a long injury history — and a look toward life after soccer — made it more than just a hasty reaction. He played only three games in 2014 before suffering a rare chondral defect in his right ankle.

"I've been through a lot with all the other injuries," he said. "I wanted to be healthy for my life.

"And I felt like I couldn't catch a break. It was like, this again? I just wondered if it would be worth it to go through all that all over again."

Opara spoke with his family and friends. He told them he was contemplating retirement — only two months after his 26th birthday and only days after national experts put him in the conversation for Major League Soccer's best defender.

Then? A change of heart.

It came slowly. After undergoing a minimally-invasive surgery — a recently-developed procedure designed to expedite his return to the field — Opara learned his season wasn't over just yet. Doctors allowed for the possibility of a 2015 return. Maybe.

A possibility is all he needed. He began rehab in the following weeks. The pain subsided more quickly than he expected. He regained the urge to join his teammates back on the field.

And that's looking more and more likely by the day. Opara has returned to Sporting Kansas City practice, at least for the non-contact drills, with an eye toward returning to the field this season. His coach, Peter Vermes, expects it to happen — whether it be before the regular season concludes on Oct. 25 or sometime during the playoffs.

"That's always been the goal (since the diagnosis)," Opara said. "Obviously the way I've been progressing, for now, why not try to push and see where it goes? If we keep doing well as a team and hopefully make the playoffs and make a deep run, I see no reason why I wouldn't be available for that."

There are still hurdles to cross, of course. While Opara says his lateral movement is "just as good, if not better" than it was prior to the Achilles' tendon rupture, the linear movements are still a work in progress. He is noted for his athleticism — which makes him a dangerous aerial weapon — but his jumping ability hasn't fully returned yet.

There are signs it's close.

"Ike was in an exercise the other day. If you would've come out here and you didn't know the team, and I (told) you to pick that guy that you think is injured out there, you would never pick him," Vermes said. "I can tell you that."

Even so, Opara isn't near 90-minutes fit. And central defender isn't a typical spot for a mid-gme substitution, though Vermes hinted at an exception.

"One of the things you can do with Ike is bring him on late in the game, and he can be an extra guy for aerial duels and things like that," Vermes said. "He has value in that respect."

It's an exciting possibility — and a potentially significant one for a Sporting KC team in need of an added aerial threat on offensive set pieces.

If it happens.

"I don't know what my future holds. I'm just taking it day-by-day," Opara said. "But it looks a lot better than it did a few months ago. I know that."