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Minnesota United’s Ike Opara named MLS Defender of the Year

Opara is the fourth player in MLS history to win the league’s Defender of the Year award multiple times.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Major League Soccer has named Minnesota United centerback Ike Opara its 2019 MLS Defender of the Year.

It marked the second time in three seasons Opara has received the award, and the 30-year-old is now one of four players in league history to have won the award multiple times, joining the likes of Chad Marshall, Robin Fraser and Carlos Bocanegra.

Opara swept voting among all three constituencies, earning 26 percent of the player vote, 27 percent of the club vote and an impressive 45 percent of the media vote. LAFC’s Walker Zimmerman finished second with Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson coming in third.

“I think after the season, I’ll truly be able to evaluate [it],” Opara said. “Initially, being a two-time winner, I think I’m maybe the fourth person to do that. So that’s really cool. To be where I was five years ago, thinking I wasn’t going to play soccer again… To rattle off the last few years that I’ve done, I’m grateful for a lot of people — trainers, doctors, friends, family, staff, teammates — the list goes on and on.”

Head coach Adrian Heath said the Loons’ were “delighted” in their collective response to Opara’s official recognition.

“Couldn’t happen to a better player, in terms of his personality, his professionalism,” Heath said. “[He’s] everything we thought we were getting. We made a lot of inquiries when we were thinking of bringing him into the club. We never heard a negative off of anyone who knows him — teammates, people who have worked with him. He’s been everything and more. People thought we paid a lot for him. I actually thought, at his age, we got him cheap. His performances this year have proved that.”

Acquired via trade over the winter for $1 million in allocation money, Opara was part of a defensive rebuild in Minnesota, joining fellow signings Osvaldo Alonso, Romain Métanire and Vito Mannone — along with draft picks Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper — to help the Loons concede 28 fewer goals than they did during the 2018 season. From 2017 and 2018, Minnesota earned the ignominious distinction of becoming the first team in MLS history to concede 70-plus goals in back-to-back seasons. This year, the Loons allowed just 43 goals.

Opara told teammates upon his arrival in Minnesota that he refused to pick the ball out of the Loons’ goal 70 times in the coming season, and was true to his word.

Of his teammates, Opara said, “At the end of the day, people are getting recognized when you do well. When you put yourself in successful positions as a team, the individuals will reap the benefits. I’m just glad I was able to come over and do my part this year.”

Opara’s previous team, Sporting Kansas City, saw its goals allowed rise from 40 in 2018 to 67 in 2019.

The North Carolina-native started 29 of 34 league games for MNUFC in 2019, logging 2,566 minutes and contributing a trio of goals. His presence in the middle of Minnesota’s back line was instrumental in helping the Loons secure their first berth in the MLS Cup playoffs after finishing fourth in the Western Conference. Opara’s 155 clearances were the third-most in the league in 2019, and his 22 blocked shots ranked him among the top 20 players in that category.

Opara will now turn his focus to Sunday’s playoff game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. On the strength of that fourth-place finish, Minnesota will host the Galaxy in the first playoff game of Allianz Field’s short history.

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