Ike Opara named Goal’s MLS Defender of the Year

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The Sporting KC defender was finally able to stay healthy this season and proved to be an instrumental part in the league’s best defensive unit

For much of his professional career, the problem hasn’t been what Ike Opara did on the field. It’s been keeping him on it.

Prior to 2017, Opara had never played in more than 25 games in a season — a feat he managed only in 2016. Prior to that, he’d never played in more than 18, and had amassed just 52 games in six previous MLS season.

Season-ending ankle and Achilles injuries limited him to just nine games in 2014 and 2015.

But for the most part, Opara left the injury bug behind in 2017, even managing to come back from a mid-season concussion sustained during Sporting KC’s successful U.S. Open Cup run, to put together his best all-around season. In total he played, and started in, a career-high 30 games in the regular season. 

The third overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, Opara arguably has become the leading man on a back line with plenty of candidates for that honor, from U.S. international Matt Besler to MLS goalkeeper of the year nominee Tim Melia.

But on the defense that allowed a league-fewest 29 goals this season, Opara led the back four in interceptions (2.7 per game) and was second in clearances (3.8 per game). He also posted the best passing number of his career, 86.1 percent, being narrowly edged out for best on the team by Graham Zusi.

And, while it isn’t the most important aspect of his job, Opara chipped in with three league goals this season, including getting on his bike for one of the best strikes of the year.

It was a close battle as Vancouver Whitecaps center back Kendall Waston nearly took first place. But in the end, fulfilling his immense potential this season and perhaps the most important player on the league’s best back line has earned Ike Opara the nod as Goal’s MLS Defender of the Year.

Ike Opara playing surface gfx

Honorable mentions

2. Kendall Waston: The Costa Rican was the anchor to the Whitecaps back line that had a pair of young players on it and made a change at goalkeeper midseason. He was MLS leader in clearances per game with 7.4 per game, and one of only three players with a minimum of 18 appearances to average a block a game. He also added four goals and an assist during the campaign — not too shabby from the big center back. 

3. Justin Morrow: Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Operating as a wing-back, Morrow was a big contributor to Toronto’s attack, scoring eight goals in 2017, good for a tie for third on the team. He also averaged the second-most tackles and the fourth-most interceptions, not only showing himself to be a solid contributor on the defensive end, but placing himself back in the U.S. national team conversation at the position.

4. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez: There was some debate among the Goal editors on who was the standout among the Atlanta defense with some support shown for veteran Michael Parkhurst. But the nod was given to his center-back partner Gonzalez Pirez, who led his team in per-game rates for tackles, interceptions and was a close second to Parkhurst in clearances.

So while Atlanta’s attacker signings Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron may get more press, the 25-year-old Gonzalez Pirez certainly ranks as one of the better MLS debutants this season.

5. Florian Jungwirth: The San Jose back line was not always the best of units this season, but Jungwirth was instrumental in the success they had. Finishing second among his fellow San Jose defenders in tackles, interceptions and clearances, Jungwirth also chipped in with two goals and three assists as the team returned to the MLS playoffs in 2017.

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