Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Ike Opara appreciates everything the San Jose Earthquakes did for him during his three years there and he does not want that to go unnoticed. After all, San Jose is where he started his career and learned what it took to be a professional.
It is also the same place where he never truly felt comfortable.
Opara ended a three-year stint with the Earthquakes on Wednesday after being traded to Sporting Kansas City for a second round pick in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft. The move came days before Opara was set to enter Stage Two of the MLS Re-Entry Draft and the 23-year-old centerback did not hesitate to jump at the opportunity to join Sporting KC after head coach Peter Vermes called Opara’s agent to express his fondness for the athletic defender following Stage One of the Re-Entry Draft.
The Earthquakes also wanted Opara, at a lower figure, of course, but he was not keen on returning to the place where he suffered a number of injuries and never really fit in.
“I would say just being comfortable, really,” Opara told SBI when asked about was the toughest part of his three-year stay with the Earthquakes. “Just on and off the field, when you leave the soccer field, you have to be extremely happy with where you are as a person. At times I felt like I was isolated for whatever reason.
“They’re a great group of guys on that team for sure, without a doubt, but I never truly felt like myself, especially after the injuries, at least off the field. It’s something I can learn from and everyone always says its cliche, but for me I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that, in taking it and moving forward.”
Moving forward, Opara will join a Sporting KC team that is stocking up for a busy 2013. The team also re-signed MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler and added midfielder Benny Feilhaber this week via a trade, moves that show how ambitious the club is heading into next season.
That ambitiousness combined with the wonderful stadium that is Livestrong Sporting Park and the rowdy supporters that usually fill it made the decision to head to Kansas City an easy one for Opara.
“When I heard it was a possibility, I jumped on it,” said Opara, who was also courted by the Colorado Rapids. “It was tough to say no to that opportunity. At the same time, San Jose wanted to bring me back, but I felt it was just a move that I couldn’t say no to. I was excited about it because you look at the group of guys there, they already have a great foundation and I feel like it’s a great environment to learn from and try to help out whenever I can.”
Opara is quick to point that San Jose also has a solid foundation and great environment, especially with the Earthquakes currently in the process of having their own soccer-specific stadium built. But the 23-year-old needed a change of scenery and already was fond of what Sporting KC had to offer after visiting Livestrong Sporting Park as a member of the Earthquakes.
“They’ve got a great support group for sure, great stadium, probably the best,” said Opara. “Walking into the visiting locker room I was blown away just from walking into that stadium. It speaks volumes, it really does. … I can’t wait to see what the locker room is like and what they have for the home team.”
Like much of his time in San Jose, Opara is likely to start 2013 on the bench. Sporting KC have their two starting centerbacks, Besler and Aurelien Collin, returning and all signs point to them continuing as a tandem under head coach Peter Vermes.
That, however, does not mean Opara will stay on the bench. Aside from having league games, Sporting KC will partake in the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Opara to see the field and make an up-close impression on a coach that has rated him for some time.
Still, the 6-foot-2 centerback is not taking anything for granted, even if he does see ample chance to play.
“Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is given,” said Opara. “There’s a lot of games and competitions, so there are games to be played. It’s a long season, grinding out results, there’s injuries, etc., so there is an opportunity with Peter’s team and it’s one of those things you have to sit back and look and say, ‘You know what this is where I really want to be and want to compete in.’
“Obviously, you would like to play game-in and game-out and if that’s not the case, so be it. But I felt like this is an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, especially with the amount of games that will be played. It’ll work out hopefully and it was a chance I’m willing to take.”
While Sporting KC already has the look of an MLS Cup favorite on paper, Opara is hesitant to call them that. He believes most teams consider themselves championship quality during the offseason, and that hard work must be put in during the preseason in order to really see where they stack up and how much work still needs to be done.
Opara can’t help but be excited about the future, but he also laments that things did not work out better with the Earthquakes. He showed glimpses of being a big-time player there, but injuries seemed to hamper him every time he started putting it all together.
“It was cool seeing the evolution from my first year to my third in terms of how they were making strides with the stadium and being around all that hype. It’s only going to get better,” said Opara. “Unfortunately, for me, I had some ups and had some downs. … and I think I owe it to myself to look forward and leave it all in the past and go forward and become a better person and a better player.”
Sporting KC have given Opara that opportunity and they appear to see him as a big piece of their future, having signed him to a four-year deal. Now, Opara is focused on moving on from the past and repaying the faith Sporting KC have shown in him.
“For me, short-term goals is putting it all together and be consistent,” said Opara. “Long-term wise, who knows, who’s to say? I think for me it’s getting a firm foot down in Kansas City and hopefully making it my home.”