Ike Opara is entering his third season with the San Jose Earthquakes. The No. 3 overall selection in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest, Opara has had both of his first two years as a professional impacted by injury, making just 19 appearances over that span.
Healthy with an appetite to get back on the field, Opara now heads into a critical year as one of four options on paper at center back on a deeper, more talented Earthquakes roster, while also being firmly in the mix for the U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team in an Olympic year as the London Games approach in July.
Opara, who turned 23 late last month, spoke to SJEarthquakes.com ahead of MLS First Kick on Saturday against the New England Revolution at Buck Shaw Stadium (7:30 p.m. PT / CSN California, 1590 KLIV, 1370 KZSF).
SJEarthquakes.com: How did camp go with the U.S. U-23s? How did you feel about your own performance?
Ike Opara: It went well. We all went in there with the right attitude and the right mindset. We got better throughout the week, and I think it showed in the Mexico game (a 2-0 U.S. victory at FC Dallas Stadium on Feb. 29). Personally, it went well for me. I did the best that I could and left it in his (head coach Caleb Porter) hands, so I’m excited for the future. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to play for them in (CONCACAF Olympic) qualifying (beginning March 22 in Nashville, Tenn.). I felt that I was sharp for the most part. I went in with a good mindset and just worked hard. I think it showed, and Coach Porter honored me I guess for the way I performed by handing me the captain’s armband against Mexico.
SJEQ: What did it feel like to wear the captain’s armband while representing your country?
IO: Against our biggest rival, it was special. It was an honor, one that I am proud of. I appreciate Coach Porter handing me the responsibility for that game, and hopefully he will again in the future.
SJEQ: Had you been on the field as a captain at any national team level previously?
IO: I had it for a couple of games at the U-20 level, maybe as a spot-filler. It’s definitely an honor, regardless of when you get to wear it.
SJEQ: Who was your roommate during camp?
IO: Brek Shea (of FC Dallas).
SJEQ: Did any one player impress you the most?
IO: I think everyone impressed in one way or another, and made it tough for Coach Porter to trim down his roster. Everyone worked hard and did well.
SJEQ: What would it mean to you to participate in an Olympic Games?
IO: Obviously, it would be a big honor, and one that I would remember for the rest of my life. The Olympics are a little bit different from the World Cup, but from what I’ve heard from other people who have gone, it’s definitely a special time, and one that I hope I get to take part in.
SJEQ: Moving toward the Earthquakes and the return of MLS, how did you spend your offseason?
IO: I was back in North Carolina rehabbing and working out with guys who I grew up with, went to school with or played PDL with. I was always working out somewhere, whether it was weights, running or on the ball.
SJEQ: We are days away from the start of the 2012 season. We’re sure you must be anxious to get out there and get it going. Where are you currently at, both physically and mentally? How ready are you?
IO: I’m mentally 100 percent, and physically 100 percent. I’m excited, along with the rest of the guys. Everyone is ready to go. We’ve been gearing up for this game. We’re ready to get out there and have some fun.
SJEQ: The organization made numerous positive moves in the offseason and brought in several players that have energized the fan base. What are your goals and expectations for the 2012 campaign?
IO: Every new face, every move we’ve made, has been good so far. Everyone brings a little something to the table, whether it’s on the field or personality-wise, so it’s been good. We’ve jelled so far. We’re all excited to turn this around this year. We struggled last year, clearly. We want to make it right, so hopefully we get off to a good start this year. That’s going to be key.
SJEQ: Among the new acquisitions is veteran center back Victor Bernardez. What has been your impression of him so far and what can you learn from him?
IO: His every-day approach to the game. He’s experienced a lot of leagues, as well as the World Cup level. He’s been around. He knows what he’s doing. It’s a little bit difficult with the language barrier, but I’ve been able to take a few tips from him, just from the way he goes about his business.
SJEQ: Anything you would care to divulge about what made you change your number (from 6 to 55)?
IO: A lot of things. Positive things, but I’ll keep it personal (laughing). It just had to be done, though.
Favorite Movie: That’s tough. Too many to choose from.
Favorite TV Show: Archer.
Favorite Food: Italian.
Favorite Foreign Teams: Manchester United and Real Madrid.