Quakes' Opara clear RotY candidate

Defender has been integral part of SJ's resurgence this season

SAN JOSE, Calif. – It’s only July, but already you can’t turn on a television in California without running into a costly advertisement for some candidate or other on the state’s upcoming November ballot.

Luckily for Quakes rookie Ike Opara, he gets free access most weekends to argue his case to his preferred electoral body: MLS Rookie of the Year voters.

WATCH: Bio Bites: Ike Opara

Halfway through his first MLS season, Opara has cemented his status as one of the league’s top RotY candidates. The No. 3 pick in the 2010 SuperDraft earned a starting spot coming out of training camp and hasn’t looked back, helping to anchor a much-improved San Jose defense and scoring three goals as a 6-foot-2 target on set pieces.

“I’d vote for him, for sure,” Quakes general manager John Doyle said. “Three goals, [one] game-winner and defensively, he’s great. I think he’s had a great year.

“We’ll see how the second half of the season goes. If things go the way the first half goes, and we’re in the playoffs and he’s been an integral part of that, then he should be the Rookie of the Year, in my eyes.”

On the field, Opara has no problem expressing his platform planks: speed to catch opposing strikers, athleticism to outmuscle them and leaping ability that is practically peerless.

“He’s very athletic, so he has the upper hand on most people he matches up against, which bodes well for him,” said Quakes right back Jason Hernandez. "And on set pieces, we know he’s a handful in the air."

Opara’s vertical leap surprises even those people who were warned to watch out for it, such as fellow Quakes rookie Steven Beitashour.

“He jumps through the roof, every time,” Beitashour said. “One of my friends at San Diego State, he played on the Under-20s with Ike, so he was telling me about him. So I heard of him, but then I saw it – when he jumps up for those headers, he just doesn’t stop going up. It’s crazy.”

WATCH: Opara scores first career goal

And while he rockets up on his leaps, off the pitch, Opara is humble and very well-grounded.

“I don’t even know how [the RotY award] is judged,” Opara said. “I just go out there every day and just try to help the team win. I just work out every day and try to get better.”

Opara doesn’t check out the polling of how other top rookies are doing, which is probably for the best considering the amount of time keeping such tabs would require. It’s a crowded field of candidates, including, among others, Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens (seven assists plus a game-winning goal), Red Bulls defender Tim Ream (has played every minute for the Eastern Conference’s second-place club) and Opara’s ex-Wake Forest teammate and current Revolution forward Zack Schilawski.

“With my friends, I talk to them, see how they’re doing and how their experience is going,” Opara said. “I talk to a lot with the Wake guys, some of my friends were on the [US U-20s] with me, so it’s cool to see them and hear what’s going on with their experiences.”

The biggest impediment to Opara’s candidacy so far are his schedule and his health. He missed a couple of weeks while finishing up classes at Wake Forest, then suffered a strained hamstring while working out there to stay in shape. In all, he sat out for five matches, or one-third of the season. If not for those absences, Opara’s development might be even further along.

“It’s a learn-as-you-go situation,” Hernandez said. “You can’t teach the knowledge you get from game experience. He has all the tools to be a really great player.”

For Opara, what’s crazy is the adjustment to pro life from the NCAA scene, where he dominated in seemingly effortless fashion.

“In college, you’re almost guaranteed a spot,” Opara said. “Sometimes, you can afford to take an off day. But here [in the pros], there are no off-days. Every day, you have to get better. You have to keep your spot. There are guys who want your spot, so you have to take it as a job.”

Geoff Lepper covers the San Jose Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com, on Twitter @sjquakes.