ST. PAUL -- For his work in redefining Minnesota United’s identity into a defensive-centric team, Loons center back Ike Opara was named MLS defender of the year, the league announced Thursday, Oct. 17. He is the first Loon to win an end-of-season award in the club’s three years.
With Opara as a central cog on the back line, Minnesota has advanced to the MLS Cup playoffs, which for the Loons begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday against Los Angeles Galaxy at Allianz Field.
After the Loons gave up 70 goals in 2017 and then 71 more in 2018 — a MLS-record worst over two seasons — they conceded only 43 this season, a tie for fifth-fewest in the league. Their 28-goal decrease year-over-year is the third-best turnaround in MLS history.
Opara won in a landslide vote between media, players and clubs’ technical staffs. He had nearly 33 percent of the overall vote, more than double runner-up Walker Zimmerman of Los Angeles FC.
Opara also won the award in 2017, playing for Sporting Kansas City. He is the fourth player to win the award multiple times, following Chad Marshall (2009, ’10, ’14), Robin Fraser with (1999, ’04) and Carlos Bocanegra (2002-03).
When Opara heard the news from coach Adrian Heath on Wednesday, he touched the edge of his eye and teammates celebrated with him.
Ethan Finlay hugged him and said, “One more and they name it after ya.”
Opara turned to the camera, pointed at it while smiling and said, “I’m coming for you, Chad” Marshall, the league’s only three-time winner of the award.
On Tuesday, Opara expressed what winning the award would signify to him.
“It would mean a lot to a lot of people who have helped guide me along this journey; that is the way I look at it,” he said before the announcement. “It would be really nice to put your name in history for a second time. It would be really cool.”
After first winning the award with Sporting KC in 2017, Opara was traded to Minnesota after the 2018 season.
The starkest stats on Opara’s impact reside in Kansas City. With Opara in 2017, Sporting allowed 29 goals, one of the lowest totals in league history, and in ’18, they allowed 40 and finished first in the Western Conference.
Without him this season, K.C. conceded 67 goals and sank to 11th place in the West.
Opara’s influence is seen in the 43 goals Minnesota allowed this season. With him in the lineup, Minnesota conceded only 32 goals in 30 games. When he was out of the starting XI because of injury or rest, United gave up 11 goals in four games, albeit two of those matches had Minnesota heavily rotating its side to a majority of backups.
At 6-foot-2, Opara has been a force in both boxes. On the defensive side, he is fourth in MLS with 5.2 clearances ever game, and on offense, he often is the target on set pieces and tied a career high with three goals this season.
On Tuesday, Opara said if he were to win he’d “have to thank a lot of people because it’s not just myself. I think being able to get to this point is huge for the friends, family, teammates helping support me through it.”
Opara was a top pick in the 2010 draft, but played only 62 games across six seasons (2010-15) in San Jose and Kansas City.
“To be where I was five years ago and thinking I wasn’t going to play soccer again,” Opara said in a video posted by the club. “To rattle off the last few years what I’ve done, I’m grateful for a lot of people.”