Minnesota United evaluators scoured the globe during this offseason in search of better players, including a starting center back.
If they had looked directly in front of them back home over New Year’s Eve, they would have found MLS star defender Ike Opara right there.
Opara spent four nights in St. Paul with his fiancé, visiting her sister. His runs took him down Grand Avenue, and they drove by new and nearby Allianz Field.
“I didn’t know it’d turn into my permanent future home,” Opara said.
Yet here he is, acquired Monday from Sporting Kansas City for as much as $1 million in targeted allocation money (TAM). In six seasons with Kansas City, he won a championship, two U.S. Open Cups and the 2017 Defender of the Year award in a career nearly ended by a 2015 ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Not content with a contract that has two years left, he requested a trade in December. Wednesday he found himself in Tucson, Ariz., ready to practice with his new United teammates on Thursday for the first time.
He posted a heartfelt farewell on Tuesday entitled “Now that my face full of tears have dried” to Sporting K.C. fans and a team to which he said he still feels like a son.
“You won’t hear me say one bad thing about the city itself and the organization,” Opara said. “It was better there than I could have imagined. The hardest part is saying goodbye.”
He now says hello to a United team that has added its fifth new starter in a winter makeover intended to put it in the playoffs and beyond just in time for Allianz Field’s April opening.
He called himself “thankful” to United officials and said he envisions finding in Minnesota much of what he had in Kansas City.
“I want to be part of something special and turn this ship around to what I know and where I think everyone wants it to go,” said Opara, a North Carolinian whose father worked at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic before he was born. “This is the environment I want to be in, an environment that believes in you as well. You can talk salary all you like, but if those things don’t match up, it wouldn’t be something even remotely interesting to me. I’m grateful for this opportunity and I look forward to see where it goes, on and off the field.”
United coach Adrian Heath calls the 6-2 Opara the “big, dominant, athletic” center back his team needs. He says he smiles to himself when people ask whether the team paid too steep a price — at least $900,000 in TAM — to get him.
“We looked all over,” Heath said. “If you can get this guy for the money we got him, well, we certainly wouldn’t have been able to get someone from South America, Central America or Europe with that kind of money. He gives us a different presence, in both boxes. He’s a beast in both boxes. That’s something we lacked.”
Opara turns 30 next month, an age both he and Heath call the prime of a center back’s career.
“People want to talk injuries, but very rarely do you come back stronger than I have,’’ he said. “I don’t have the miles on my legs that a lot of these other guys have. I think you’re really in your prime when there’s a million things happening and you’re able to process all that without being rushed or hurried. Physically, some guys lose a step or this or that, but I still have all that.
“I still feel like I’m going strong.”