San Jose's Opara still climbing rookie wall

Second-year Quakes defender says he's still like a newcomer

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ike Opara knows there will be a “1” written next to his name on the San Jose Earthquakes roster this season, denoting the fact that he has one year of MLS experience.

In his heart, however, the 2009 All-American from Wake Forest remains more of a neophyte.

“For me, this season is going to still be a learning process like a rookie,” Opara told MLSsoccer.com. “I’ll possibly be fighting through a rookie wall. This is my first full preseason, and I’ll be learning some things that I probably should have learned last year. I’ll still be learning on the go and hopefully improving every day.”

The Quakes would probably be happy just to see Opara able play at his 2010 level. The fleet-footed 6-foot-2 center back, selected No. 3 overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, earned a starting spot out of training camp despite having to fly back and forth to North Carolina to finish his spring coursework. He proved a dangerous target on set pieces, scoring three times in 11 appearances, and showed a catch-up speed in the back that no other Quake could provide.

But Opara suffered a broken left foot on what seemed initially to be an innocuous change of direction during a loss to Seattle last July. He underwent surgery and did not play again for San Jose in 2010.

He has used this offseason to redouble his conditioning work under the tutelage of Quakes head athletic trainer Bruce Morgan. The defender said he “hit everything,” but focused on increasing the power and flexibility in his lower body to avoid a similar outcome.

Opara cleared his first hurdle in December, when he toured Spain with the MLS’ Generation adidas squad and helped the team knock off Real Madrid’s reserve side.

“To finally get back out there playing and know that you’re 100 percent and not going to be worrying about it come regular season was big,” Opara said. “I was practicing late in [2010], and I was running on my own and whatnot, but it’s not exactly the same as playing in a game.”

Opara suffered a slight setback this week after suffering a left hip strain that has kept him from participating in full training sessions, but he expects to re-join camp during the Quakes' trip down to Ventura, Calif., next week.

During camp, he says he wants to work on all aspects of his game – “from communication to distribution to anticipation,” he explained – but knows he will have to play catch-up to dislodge either Jason Hernandez or Brandon McDonald, who re-established their solid center-back partnership over the final third of last season, from coach Frank Yallop’s first 11.

“Sure, it’s in the back of your head a little bit, but at the same time, you can’t let that worry you too much,” Opara said. “I think everyone that played back there last year did well, whether it was Brandon, Jason, [Bobby] Burling or myself. I think we have good competition at that position. Frank’s going to do what’s best for the team.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes