Ike Opara is having fun again.
The young center back's first three MLS seasons were marked by injury, disappointment – and at the outset, a brutal commute.
As he approaches the midpoint of his first year with Sporting Kansas City, though, a healthy Opara is picking up starts, earning praise for his play – and getting belated credit for his first goal of the season. And with center back Matt Besler departing for US national team duty after Sunday's home match against Houston (3:30 pm ET, NBC Sports Network, LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com), Opara is a safe bet to keep figuring into manager Peter Vermes' plans.
“It's nice to be with a club that wants you,” Opara said Wednesday during Sporting's weekly news conference.
Besler had yet to earn his first cap for the national team when Sporting acquired Opara from San Jose in an offseason trade. That wasn't prescience on his part, Vermes said, but a recognition that Sporting would need an extra measure of depth everywhere on the pitch this year.
“I knew that we needed another guy like him because of [CONCACAF] Champions League and the US Open Cup,” Vermes, who is also Sporting's technical director, said during the Wednesday news conference. “There was no way that the guys can continue to play game after game after game. At some point, they're going to break down. We needed that extra central defender for sure.”
And they've needed him sooner than expected.
Opara has made four straight starts for Sporting – three when Besler was out with a tweaked MCL and one when Aurélien Collin had to sit out last weekend's 1-1 draw at D.C. United on yellow-card suspension. His second-half goal in that last match was originally ruled an own goal, but MLS reversed course on Friday and awarded him the score.
“It’s fantastic,” Vermes told reporters after that match. “It’s not even experience. His recovery speed to get back and cover a guy, his aerial presence is absolutely incredible. It’s dominant. So, he's a great addition to our team.”
Vermes had hoped to get Opara in the 2010 SuperDraft, but the Earthquakes took him with the third overall pick. The former Wake Forest star spent the first part of his rookie season flying back and forth from North Carolina, trying to balance both classes and pro soccer, and was hampered by foot injuries in 2010 and 2011.
When his Generation adidas contract ran out at the end of last year, Opara figured it was time for a change after making just 35 appearances in three seasons.
“When I had the opportunity to move, it was pretty much a no-brainer,” he said. “I knew I was leaving San Jose one way or another. I knew it was time for me to move on. I knew Sporting was available as an option, and for me it was looking at all the scenarios. Being here was an easy decision.”
The move has given him a chance to play alongside two of the league's top center backs – Besler was the 2012 Defender of the Year, and both he and Collin were members of the Best XI – and at the same time, it forced him to adapt to their widely different playing styles.
Playing alongside the attack-minded Collin in Sporting's 1-0 win over Houston two weeks ago, Opara was a “monster” on defense – Vermes' word for him – in helping his club break the Dynamo's 36-match home unbeaten streak. Partnered with the solid, positioning-oriented Besler against D.C., Opara was able to get up into the attack and would have had a brace but for a blown offside call in the 30th minute.
“I think all of us bring something different to the table, which is cool,” Opara said. “At the same time, we have to mesh well. Obviously, Collin and Besler have been playing together a lot longer than me, with either one of them. In that regard, I think we all complement each other really well and I think it's showed, no matter who's been in there.”