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With pro ranks looming, Opara focused on another shot at college titles

Ike Opara 1 (Wake Forest)

Photo by Sports on Film

Last January, Ike Opara sat in a college classroom with his laptop cracked open as he took a peak at what could have been his future. He was supposed to be focusing on his Debate class, but was instead tuned into the 2009 MLS Draft. Opara watched intently on the internet as it unfolded, seeing two college teammates taken in the first round and knowing that if he had declared for the draft he would have been one of the first players chosen.

Aside from that day, Opara didn’t spend too much time dwelling on what might have been. He made his decision to return to Wake Forest for the 2009 season, his junior season, and he readily admits that the team’s surprising losses in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments last year after going undefeated during the regular season last year served as motivation for him to hold off turning pro another year.

“Going out on that sour note hurt a lot so coming back that was a big thing we wanted to focus on, making sure that at the end of the year we could repeat what we did in ’07,” said Opara, referring to Wake Forest’s 2007 NCAA title. Opara and the Demon Deacons begin their post-season play in the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament today in Cary, North Carolina. Wake Forest takes on Clemson in its first match.

“We’ve been building up for this all year,” Opara said of the post-season. “Especially the ACC Tournament, and the way we went out last year, it definitely stuck in our minds. That’s the one big one we want to win.

“Hopefully we can do well there and take that into the NCAA Tournament and have a run there too.”

Opara has enjoyed another stellar season for the Deamon Deacons. His third year as a starter brought him an ACC Defender of the Year honors. He has enjoyed his junior year and has had no second thoughts about his decision to stay in school and pass up a chance to be a high first-round pick.

‘It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, following which college I wanted to attend,” Opara said of the decision to stay in school. “I knew where people were projecting me, and where I might have ended up, but I just didn’t feel right with the timing and ended up coming back.

“I don’t regret it,” Opara said. “I’m still having fun and hopefully I’m still getting better as a player.”

The year hasn’t been all sunshine for the 20-year-old center back. He endured a disappointing performance at the Under-20 World Cup with the U.S. Under-20 national team, one of several Americans to struggle.

“I didn’t think I played to my best,” Opara said. “I know I could have done better, and that hurts me a little bit, but you just have to move on as a player and build from those moments.”

“I wasn’t really nervous,” Opara said of his Under-20 World Cup experience. “It was difficult to get into the rhythm of the team and we were a little off at times so it definitely hurt us individually. I don’t think anybody showed as well as they wanted to, and it’s funny because going into the tournament we played so well.”

Since returning from the tournament in Egypt, Opara has resumed his role as Wake Forest’s defensive captain and believes that the extra year in school has helped strengthen his communication skills as one of the leaders on a young team.

“Last year we had eleven guys who were on pace to play in the pro ranks,” Opara said. “Now we have a lot more younger guys who could wind up playing in the pro ranks, but who are so young and inexperienced that you have to lead them in a different way.”

One can only wonder what Opara would have been able to do in MLS this year had he come out last winter, but it is a safe bet that he could have had an impact similar to the impacts made by several of the players in what is widely regarded as one of the strongest draft classes in league history. Opara has watched MLS rookies shine, and has grown excited about his own pro prospects even though he has yet to decide if he’s turning pro.

“I’ve seen it, especially with (Steve) Zakuani, Omar Gonzalez, Sam Cronin and what they’ve been doing this year,” Opara said. “It’s definitely exciting to see that those guys can step in right away and do well and perform at a high level.

“It definitely gets you excited that it could be you in the coming year or so,” Opara said. “That’s something I definitely look forward to, whenever that happens.”

Opara still hasn’t committed to making this his final season at Wake Forest, but he is once again one of the top potential draft candidates. He’s unquestionably the best defensive prospect who could potentially be available in the draft, and would be a very tempting option for expansion club Philadelphia Union with the first pick in the 2010 MLS Draft.

Opara isn’t ruling out a move to Europe, much like the move made by former Wake Forest teammate Marcus Tracy, who passed on an MLS contract offer to sign with Danish club Aalborg.

“There’s a lot of things that play into it and it’s definitely going to be a hard decision whenever it happens again, which may be pretty soon,” Opara said of his decision to turn pro. “I’m trying to maximize my options, whether it be in MLS or in Europe.

“Last year I had a couple of options, but not enough to make me make a rushed decision.”

A year later, Opara finds himself in a similar situation. He’s still a highly-regarded pro prospect who has some college silverware to try and help his team win. The pros can wait, and while he won’t admit it yet, it is tough to imagine him returning to Wake Forest in 2010, especially not If he succeeds in helping the Deamon Deacons regain their ACC and NCAA titles this fall.

If Opara can accomplish those goals, chances are he won’t be watching the 2010 MLS Draft on his laptop in a college classroom, but rather from a podium alongside MLS commissioner Don Garber, with a new hat and scarf to show off.


  1. Since Opara was born in Durham, NC…do you mean to say no investment in “African-American” players? Just checking how far your prejudices lsy.

  2. The Us has 15 million American born kids playing soccer. We can stock American colleges with American born soccer players and help them get an education. We dont need to fund these foreigners at the expense of tax paying Americans. This is really sickening. Let them pay their own damn college.

  3. Wow, advocat.

    I may not be American but I’ll put on my smart hat and try not to believe that most knowledgeable sports and soccer(in general) fans don’t think like you and I do hope they don’t.

    You do realize there’s students from all over the world in American Universities and *gasp* some are actually studying thanks to FREE COLLEGE MONEY!!!!!

    You’re the definition of a Clown.

    Thanks Ives for giving us an update on Ike. His U-20 performance was atypical for those who’ve seen him play more than once and it’s good to get his take on what went wrong as well as his future prospects.

  4. People keep wondering: where are the great american players? How come we dont generate any. Ike is one of the reason. He is African not an american product. he came to the US when he was 16. We commit soccer fraud by “claiming” him in a soccer sense. The USSf falsely commited tons of resources to his development- at the expense of other American born American players. This simply is outrageous to me. Over and over. Did we learn from Freddy Adu? Literally millions of dollars wasted. Talented american players denied. In the end? A big nothing. Johnson, Altidore, Adu, Edu, Holden, Soumare Bukarey. An dnow not only USSF precious funds but also FREE COLLEGE MONEY. This is just sickening. American scholarships for American born players. I stand by this. More adus and Soumares? A big no thank you.

    (SBI-Advocat, Ike Opara was born in Durham, North Carolina. What in the world is wrong with you?)

  5. I talked to a guy recently who just graduated from Mason and played for the team. I asked that same question. From his answer it seems very unlikely that we’ll be seeing Fro in the professional ranks

  6. Opara was embarrassed by a bunch of Korean college kids. This isn’t Starcraft. We shouldn’t be beaten that badly by Korean college students.

  7. I called him a clown because he was more worried about his fauxhawk haircut before the Germany game than he was the actual game itself (from the US Soccer videos).

    What a great commitment these kids are showing representing our country.

  8. Donovan did “horribly bad” at the 2006 World Cup but i dont see you saying the same thing about him. Ohhhh maybe its because you are wrong. Judging a player based on a bad tournament is unfair

  9. ike is the best defender in the college game bar none. Ike needs to develop his decision making and tactial awareness more. BUT that being said he has the pace and athleticism to make up for many of the mistakes he makes. Yes, I know what you will say now “…the pro game is so much more athletic and faster than the college game” but I’ve seen Ike play with the 20’s vs MLS teams and he is still the most athletic player on the pitch. If Ike doesnt get drafted number one it will be a huge suprise. And I agree with Barnett in that Ike was forced to clean up for many midefielder mistakes and a lazy Gale Agbousmande. Who on the u20’s played well anyways? Lay off the kid would you?

  10. I may be wrong and he has the ability and (more importantly) the drive to make it in Europe or at a new MLS franchise.

    But after the sub-par showing at the U-20 WC and his cautious approach to going pro, my gut feeling is it would be better for him to finish his senior year next year or get on an MLS team with proven great coaches and an experienced defensive unit who need new defenders.

    It depends on if he’s in it for the long haul or to make a quick buck and hope for the best.

  11. Thats really harsh for a 20 year old who is probably the best central defender in the college game. I think you might want to tone down your assessment of his game. He was forced to clean up a lot of midfield mistakes in the U-20 world cup that almost all defenders would have looked bad once in awhile. But to call him a “clown” is ridiculous and you should be ashamed for that comment!!!!

  12. I have to imagine that the success and playing time of this year’s rookie class has to bode well for MLS, especially after having done away with the reserve league. Europe is going to continue to offer larger contracts and more direct scouting, but MLS is providing opportunities for playing time and professional competition on home soil in the immediate future. I’m still all for expanding rosters, bringing back the reserve league or development ties to USL or whatever the new league is called, but this class of rookies is great PR for attracting players from the college ranks.

  13. I think MLS, and Philly, in particular, would be a good fit for Opara. He’d have a good chance to start right away and work with an professional coaching staff. Plus, it looks like the city is really going to embrace the club. Should be a fun place to ply your trade.

    If he goes to Europe, I’m not going to be upset, but I really think these are the kinds of guys MLS should try hard at keeping state-side. If they offer him a comparable salary to the Euro-leagues and he still bolts (ala Tracy and Davies), I won’t complain. If Europe is his first-choice than I wish him the best of luck.

  14. Ives, Opara was so incredibly bad at the U-20 World Cup. Why are you giving this clown space on your blog?

    (SBI-“Incredibly bad” is a bit of a stretch. He didn’t have a great tournament, but he’s still a quality prospect. Let’s have this discussion again in a year and see where things stand.)

  15. You can look at it that way. You could also consider a guy like Freddy Adu, who probably could have gone to any college in the country on scholarship. Instead, he’s riding the bench and — as his Twitter attests — can’t spell his way out of a paper bag. There are things to be said about going pro….but there are a lot of positives about the college system. Graduating with a degree is a heck of a good thing, considering how few of these guys will actually find a regular spot on a pro team for more than a few seasons.


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