By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — As far as Ike Opara is concerned, he should have had a brace Sunday at RFK Stadium. One goal at the least. But with one tally wrongly called offside and another ruled an own goal, the Sporting Kansas City defender found his name absent from the score sheet.
Make his goal drought 34 months and counting. Such is the life of a centerback.
“Either way,” he said with a laugh, “I think I got screwed tonight in terms of goals.”
Luckily for Opara, scoring goals isn’t an integral part of his job description. Preventing them is his specialty, and he’s been doing that with efficiency over the past four matches.
Filling in for the injured Matt Besler (knee) for three games and the suspended Aurelien Collin during Sunday’s 1-1 draw at D.C. United, the offseason acquisition hasn’t missed a beat while helping Kansas City allow just two strikes during the 2-1-1 stretch.
“I was biding my time and I finally got a little bit of a breakthrough, and I think I’ve shown well,” Opara said. “The coaching staff, I had their full trust to begin with and I think it was just a matter of finally getting a window of opportunity and making sure I do well with it.”
Opara certainly enjoyed an active evening against United. In the first half, he knocked home Jacob Peterson’s pass at the far post for what looked like his first goal since July 2010, only to see the assistant referee intervene. As replays showed, Opara was 3 or 4 yards onside.
But he did eventually put his team in front in the 60th minute, when he redirected a Graham Zusi corner kick off United defender Ethan White and in for an own goal. And the 24-year-old also partnered with Besler to deny service to United strikers Casey Townsend and Lionard Pajoy, who saw little of the ball over their combined 90 minutes.
“I think you either adjust or you don’t, and if you don’t adjust you’re not going to succeed,” Besler said. “He’s bought into the team system, and credit to him — he’s done very well.”
Added Zusi: “There was absolutely no letdown when he came onto the field.”
When Opara steps in, he’s filling big shoes. Last season, after all, Besler was named MLS Defender of the Year while Collin finished third in the voting.
Yet it’s still a luxury for Vermes to have Opara available on the bench. Although the third overall pick out of Wake Forest in the 2010 SuperDraft struggled with injuries during his three seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes, his pure skill set has never been in question.
“His recovery speed to get back and cover a guy, his aerial presence, it’s absolutely incredible — it’s dominant,” Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. “There are certain aspects that we expect from our central defenders, and he’s adapted very quickly, he’s extremely coachable, and that’s going to bode really well for him as he goes forward.”
Considering Kansas City’s schedule, Opara should get plenty more opportunities to prove his worth. Besler is set to miss time while playing for the U.S. national team, and fixture congestion brought on by the CONCACAF Champions League and Sporting’s attempt to defend their U.S. Open Cup crown further establish the need for depth.
Whenever he is called upon, Opara relishes proving he is up to the task.
“For me, when I play in place of [Besler] or Collin or whatever, I know that teams most likely want to think of me as a weak link, maybe because I’m not proven with these guys or whatnot,” Opara said. “But for me, it’s a challenge to raise my level to their level and be just as good as them on the day. That’s what I take pride in.”