Two years after he was named the MLS Defender of the Year for the first time, Minnesota United's Ike Opara has won it again.
He beat fellow finalists Miles Robinson from Atlanta United and LAFC's Walker Zimmerman to win this season's award. The results of voting by opponents, other teams' coaches and management and by media members were announced Thursday.
Opara's 2017 award, earned while playing with Sporting Kansas City, came after two abbreviated seasons in 2014 and 2015, when he played a combined nine games because of injuries, including concussions.
This season, he proved himself pivotal in turning around a United defense that allowed 70 and 71 goals in its first two seasons, but just 43 this season. The turnaround also included midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Vito Mannone, among others.
"All things said, I'm thankful," Opara said. "I really am, to be in this position, considering where I was just a handful of years ago."
He received nearly 33% of the combined votes, including 45% of the media vote, 27% of the clubs' votes and nearly 26% of opposing players' votes.
Opara called the honor "the culmination of hard work, support from friends and family, the training staff here keeping me healthy. A lot of things I owe to a lot of people. It's not just me."
A hit to the head suffered on opening day at Allianz Field in April slowed him early. More recently he has been testing a protective facial mask he could wear in United's playoff debut Sunday vs. L.A. Galaxy after he got hit in the nose.
United acquired him in January for $1 million in allocation money that, at the time, created lots of internet chatter about whether he could stay healthy and how much had left just as he was about to turn 30.
"There's always that," he said. "I like to find motivation, and it wasn't very tough for me to find that. It was popping up everywhere I turned. There's a part of me that's smiling. But at the same time, it's people's jobs to do that. It's part of the game, unfortunately.
"What I needed to do was show week in and week out. To be able to do that with a new club, with a lot of different factors in this environment, it was a crazy year."
He moved from Kansas City to Minnesota and later so did his girlfriend. Three months into the season, they married.
"And that was probably the fifth craziest thing that happened this year," Opara said. "Seriously, so it's just rewarding in a lot of ways."
Opara played in 30 of 34 regular-season games with United, 29 of them as a starter. In doing so, he provided the physical presence and experience his team lacked in its first two MLS seasons.
"At the time, people thought we overpaid for Ike," coach Adrian Heath said. "I thought we got him cheap. It'll be interesting to see what Sporting thinks if we'd ask them today, for what he'd doing.
"He has been outstanding in this league. It's the second time he won it in, what, three years? So that tells you. He has been terrific for us."
Mannone is one of three finalists for the Goalkeeper of the Year, as are D.C. United's Bill Hamid and NYCFC's Sean Johnson. The winner will be announced next Thursday.
That's also the day United would play its second-round playoff game — most likely at LAFC — if it wins its first-round match.