Editor's note: Ike Opara was named MLS' Defender of the Year for 2019 on Thursday, after a season in which he turned around a Minnesota United defense that was among the worst in the league in each of its first two seasons in MLS, and led the Loons to their first ever playoff berth. Read on to follow his journey from Sporting Kansas City to the Twin Cities.
As much as things have changed for Ike Opara, at the office, it's business as usual. Last season, he shepherded a defense that ranked fourth in Major League Soccer in both goals against and expected goals against. This season, the back line he leads ranks fourth in goals against and seventh in expected goals against.
What has changed is that those defenses are on two different teams: Sporting Kansas City in 2018 and Minnesota United this season. And the change in fortunes of those clubs -- Minnesota's expected goals against has improved from 22nd in the league, while SKC's goals against has dropped to 20th in MLS -- reveals just how invaluable Opara is. All of which is ironic, considering that it is value that led him to leave Kansas City for the Twin Cities.
Twelve months removed from winning MLS' Defender of the Year Award in 2017, Opara was Sporting's third-highest-paid center-back, with his $342,916 annual salary lagging well behind new signing Andreu Fontas' $999,999 and Matt Besler's $783,250.
"I think if you just look around the league," Opara said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC, "I think objectively I had a very undervalued contract."
So he asked for a new deal, a year after signing a contract that improved his 2017 salary by nearly $200,000.
"We had a discussion to see if we could make this happen," SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes told the Kansas City Star last offseason about Opara's request. "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."
After conceding 141 goals in its first two seasons in MLS, Minnesota had set out last winter to add an experienced center-back, ideally someone familiar with the league. By Jan. 28, Opara was a Loon.
"It was a challenge that I was willing to accept," Opara said ahead of facing his former side on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). "[The Loons] were ready to right the past two years, because no one wants to give up 70-plus goals a year. These guys were sick and tired of hearing it."
So United parted with $1 million in Targeted Allocation Money to bring the now-30-year-old to Minnesota.
"One or two people raised a few eyebrows and thought we overpaid for him," Minnesota manager Adrian Heath told ESPN FC. "But as I've said since we've got him: We got him cheap."
It has been money well spent. Minnesota United finished ninth in the Western Conference in each of its first two seasons in MLS; but with Opara anchoring the back line, the Loons are second in 2019 with a goal differential that has gone from minus-12 at this point last year to plus-eight.
Of course, Opara can't take all the credit. The club's front office signed former Seattle Sounders captain Osvaldo Alonso (who has shown few signs of slowing down at age 33), midfielder Jan Gregus (who is among the league's leading creators from deep), right-back Romain Metanire (who was selected to the All-Star team last month) and goalkeeper Vito Mannone (who has the third-most clean sheets in the league). They also added left-back Chase Gasper and midfielder Hassani Dotson with their second and third picks in the SuperDraft, a pair that is in in the conversation for rookie of the year.
But central to the club's improbable rise up the table has been a vastly improved defense, where Opara's physical abilities and leadership qualities have had a tangible effect on everyone around him -- old Loons and new Loons alike. And while his new club thrives in his presence, his old one has faltered without him.
SKC are in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2010, sitting 10th in the West, six points out of the conference's final playoff place.
To say that Sporting's downturn is solely a result of Opara's departure would be misleading. The club has been beset by injuries in 2019, losing 141 man games to injury this season, with 74 of those coming from players across the back line. Besler and Fontas, the center-back pairing who earned more money than Opara in Kansas City last season, have been absent 12 times this term.
Ultimately, it has led to defending that Vermes has called "terrible," defending that "embarrassed" him.
"It's stuff that this team does not do, but unfortunately, we're doing it," he was quoted as saying by journalist Andy Edwards. "And that's a problem."
Amid its rash of injuries, Sporting is desperate for the sort of defensive depth that the 2017 Defender of the Year would've offered. And with Opara on course to contend for this season's award, he'll have the opportunity to show his former club precisely what it is missing when he and Minnesota travel to Kansas City on Thursday.
"It's hard to compare those two seasons across two different teams, but in some ways, I think I am [playing better than in 2017]," Opara said. "That's always something I've been striving for, is to be recognized as one of the best defenders in this league."
That recognition is likely to arrive sooner rather than later. Considering Opara's request for a greater contract before joining Minnesota, and the club's dramatic turnaround since his arrival, it would be foolish not to reward him financially. The adoration of his coach suggests a long-term deal with the Loons is in Opara's future, and Heath also has campaigned for his center-back to add a second Defender of the Year award in three seasons.
"I haven't seen anybody better, I really haven't," Heath said. "If there's somebody who's going to beat him to Defender of the Year, he's going to have to have had some year to have a better year than Ike Opara's had."