For years, Ike Opara has been held back by injuries, limiting a player that has always shown plenty of promise and potential. In 2017, he showed everything he can do when healthy while firmly establishing himself as one of the premier defenders in MLS.
He proved the anchor of a stellar Sporting KC defense in 2017, leading the way for a back four that was essentially unanimously seen as the league’s best. As a result of his contributions, Ike Opara earned honors as SBI MLS Defender of the Year.
The Sporting KC defense allowed just 29 goals all season, and Opara was a big part of that backline becoming one of the best in league history during a year where attacking led the way. With Matt Besler missing time due to USMNT commitments, the North Carolina native was the leader of the SKC defense alongside goalkeeping standout Tim Melia. In addition, he fired three goals throughout the season, including a spectacular bicycle kick finish against the LA Galaxy.
After playing just 52 games throughout his six-year MLS career, Opara featured 30 times for Sporting KC in the regular season.
Here is a rundown of the other candidates for the SBI MLS Defender of the Year Award, as chosen by SBI Editorial Staff:
2. JUSTIN MORROW
The Toronto FC wingback was a vital part of the team’s revenge tour. Morrow scored eight goals throughout the 2017 season, good for third on the team. His ability to both defend and create out wide proved vital to the TFC system as the club cruised to a Supporters Shield. As a result, he jumped back into the U.S. Men’s National Team picture following a series of performances that all but earned him the title of the league’s top fullback.
3. KENDALL WASTON
A frequent nominee for any MLS defensive award, Kendall Waston was once again the most consistent piece of an evolving Whitecaps backline. The Costa Rican star helped guide the Whitecaps to third in the Western Conference despite a goalkeeper switch and plenty of young pieces scattered throughout the defense. Along the way, Waston provided four goals and an assist in his 25 appearances.
4. LEANDRO GONZALEZ PIREZ
Organizing a defense is likely the toughest part of putting together an expansion team but, thanks to Gonzalez Pirez, Atlanta United never truly struggled. Playing alongside veteran Michael Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez and the Atlanta defense, originally viewed as the team’s Achilles heel, proved to be pretty good. He racked up 32 appearances for the club in what was no doubt a successful debut season as Atlanta allowed the second fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.
5. CHAD MARSHALL
After helping lead the Seattle Sounders to an MLS Cup last season, Marshall provided more of the same in 2017. In a year where the Sounders dealt with injuries and, at points, an MLS Cup hangover, he continued to be a veteran presence in the backline, making 28 appearances for a Sounders defense that allowed just 39 goals, third fewest in the league.