Ike Opara

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MLS Best XI includes three LAFC stars, Zlatan

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EDIT: The first edition of this post incorrectly listed Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro as a member of the Best XI. Carles Gil of New England claimed the spot.

Minnesota United’s remarkable turnaround landed two players on the MLS Best XI, one of three clubs to place multiple players in the Best XI.

LAFC led the way with three, while Atlanta United also posted two names on the board.

[ MORE: Dest a win for Berhalter ]

Toronto FC, New England, the LA Galaxy, and New York City FC were also represented

We tried our luck at it last month, and failed pretty miserably in landing six of the eleven.

But we got to speak to the Goalkeeper of the Year, so we’ll accept the silver lining.

2019 MLS Best XI

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone, Minnesota United

Defenders
Ike Opara, Minnesota United
Walker Zimmerman, LAFC
Miles Robinson, Atlanta United

Midfielders
Carles Gil, New England Revolution
Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC
Maxi Moralez, NYCFC
Eduard Atuesta, LAFC

Forwards
Carlos Vela, LAFC
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy

MLS Playoffs: 5 Key Battles in 1st Round

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It’s playoff time! With the new MLS postseason format, featuring single-elimination matches, the margins between victory and defeat are razor thin. Winning individual battles, or a battle to control a zone in the field, are more important than ever.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key battles ahead of the start of the 2019 MLS playoffs.

5. Wayne Rooney v. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC CB’s

At this point of the season, every game could be Wayne Rooney’s last in a D.C. United uniform. Along with Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola, Rooney is clearly the key man to D.C. United’s attack. The ball will flow through him as D.C. gets going, and it will be on TFC to mark him tightly and make sure he has no space to turn and strike the ball, or get on the end of a cross into the box.

Michael Bradley, at 32-years old, is no spring chicken. Especially late in the season, it will be interesting to see how he does marking Rooney when Rooney drops into the space between TFC’s backline, or whether he can pass him off to Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga in the center of defense.

4. Union central midfield v. Red Bulls central midfield

The Philadelphia Union have enjoyed an outstanding season, and a large part of that has been the play in central midfield of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The two veterans are adept on both sides of the ball, can play a pass, intercept passes, and control the tempo of the match. If they’re put off their game, with some pressure as soon as they receive the ball, the New York Red Bulls have a chance to win.

Whether it’s Sean Davis, Christian Caceres, Mark Rzatkowski, or Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (who is coming off a goal for Paraguay during the international break), their work in the middle of the park will be crucial to determining which team controls the tempo, possession, and ultimately, who creates the most chances. Otherwise, Medunjanin and Bedoya will pick out Brenden Aaronson, Marco Fabian or Kacper Przybyłko and be off to the races.

3. Julian Gressel v. Jalil Anibaba

It’s a direct rematch of the last week of the season, where Atlanta United triumphed over the New England Revolution with a 3-1 win to close out a strong regular season campaign. While there’s plenty of focus on Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – who didn’t play in the season finale – and Ezequiel Barco, the real difference-maker in the attack for Atlanta United is Julian Gressel. The German-born wing back has plenty of marauding runs forward, is always available to receive a pass and can deliver quality crosses too. He ended up with two assists in the season finale and Anibaba was eventually substituted, though it may have been more to give the Revs some offensive punch with Juan Aguedlo coming on. It will be up to either Anibaba, or someone on the Revs to shut him down, cutting off one supply line of balls into the box for Josef Martinez to rifle home.

2. Jordan Morris v. Reggie Cannon

It’s a battle of two U.S. Men’s National Team regulars. Jordan Morris has had a resurgent second half of the season and appears to be in the best form of his life. On the other side, Cannon’s parlayed his terrific form for FC Dallas, despite his young age, into a starting role for the USMNT.

Morris in recent weeks has proven he still has his game-changing pace, as well as an improved left-footed touch. It’s going to be up to Cannon to stay with Morris down the wing, or pass him off to a teammate such as Reto Zeigler should Morris cut inside and not leave space open behind Cannon for a runner down the left wing.

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic v. Ike Opara

One of the league’s best strikers against the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. 6-foot-5 (Zlatan) against 6-foot-2 (Ike Opara). When Ibrahimovic and Opara meet, it will be one of MLS’s duels of the ages. Zlatan has been nearly impossible for defenders to contain in MLS, as he not only uses his incredible size and tactical nous to win headers, but his technical ability on the ball ain’t bad. However, if there’s one player who can push around Zlatan, it might be Opara.

Opara has been a revelation to Minnesota United and could single-handedly be the reason they’re hosting a home game in the playoffs this year, rather than hitting the road or watching from home. He’s also part of the reason Sporting KC has been a complete mess this season.

If history is to be used as a precursor, the only meeting between Opara and Ibrahimovic this season ended in a scoreless draw. We’ll see if Opara can notch another win over Ibrahimovic this weekend as well.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

[ Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise ]

Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

[ MORE: Berhalter slams USMNT after Canada defeat — what now? ]

This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.

The impossible annual task of choosing an MLS Best XI

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Forget about a functional XI when you’re putting together an MLS Best XI.

That’s true in most leagues, to be fair, but the offensive firepower in MLS puts up gaudy numbers as silky attackers are given a bit more free reign than their used to in previous leagues.

Consider that two players eclipsed the 30-goal mark in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter doing it in under 30 matches. Josef Martinez also came close in 29 matches.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

Those players are enough to form a trident for your Best XI, and they come from loaded units.

Then there’s midfielder Maxi Moralez of NYCFC with his 20 assists in 2434 minutes.

Vela had double digit goals and assists, an achievement met by Carles Gil (New England), Alejandero Pozuelo (Toronto), and Nani (Orlando City).

They all can’t make it.

So we’ll build from the back, and likely punish the fullbacks thanks to a remarkable group of attackers.

Here is who is getting my vote.

Goalkeeper

The backstop is always a tricky choice. Bill Hamid and Brad Guzan led the league in clean sheets with 14, but only the former will warrant consideration here. The Galaxy’s David Bingham led the league in saves and saves inside the box, while also stopping a pair of penalties.

Both join Portland’s Steve Clark, Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, and New England’s Matt Turner as advanced stat darlings.

For me it comes down to Hamid and Bingham. The former had far superior defenders, but I can’t get past DC United’s 38 goals allowed to the Galaxy’s 59. Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me thinking of it like the Jennings Award, but that’s my tiebreaker.

Defender

I’m gonna start with DC again here, and the Black-and-Red have two players deserving of a place: Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum.

Here’s why I’m opting for the latter: On the SofaScore list of the Top 20 rated defenders in MLS, minimum 25 games, all but two were dribbled past 11 times or more: Orlando’s Lamine Sane and Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s number? Two.

You read that right. In 3032 minutes this season, he was taken twice.

Other contenders include:

— Ike Opara, who had another remarkable season and didn’t miss a beat in switching from Sporting KC to Minnesota.

Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago dropped from the center of the park and was very strong.

— Miles Robinson of Atlanta was exceptional, especially given his age, while Ryan Hollingshead had the best advanced statistical season of any back on WhoScored. Jorge Moreira gets that nod on SofaScore. And spare a thought for Keegan Rosenberry, who intercepted 16 more passes than anyone else in MLS (82) but still can’t get a call from the USMNT.

Everybody else

We named the prime attackers in MLS at the top of this post. You’d like to add Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri.

Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC have been difference makers behind Vela. In-beom Hwang was marvelous more often than not but on a terrible Vancouver team.

But there’s one name I believe qualifies as the least-heralded star in MLS.

Minnesota United’s Jan Gregus needs to be on this team. I don’t think he will because his goal and eight assists don’t pop off the page and the Slovakian national team doesn’t get as much love as center midfield partner and well-established bulldog Osvaldo Alonso.

Gregus was fifth in MLS in interceptions with 1.9 per match, 2.2 key passes, and crafts an awfully nice looking long pass. You could argue that he was the key to Minnesota’s fourth seed.

The Best XI

So here’s my team. We’d be destroyed out wide, but would probably score 10 goals a game so man would we entertain?

Bill Hamid (DC)

Robinson (ATL) — Birnbaum (DC) — Opare (MIN)

Gregus (MIN) — Atuesta (LAFC)

Lodeiro (SEA) — Moralez (NYCFC)

Vela (LAFC) — Ibrahimovic (LAG) — Martinez (ATL)

Bench: Bingham (LAG), Brillant (DC), Gil (NE), Pozuelo (TOR), Przyzbylko (PHI), Valeri (POR), Schweinsteiger (CHI)

SKC trade Opara to MNUFC for potential 7-figure sum

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MLS’s trade market has gone a bit crazy over the last year-plus — particularly deals involving some of the league’s top American center backs — and Sporting Kansas City head coach/technical director Peter Vermes was more than happy to take advantage of one team’s desperation… again.

[ MORE: Inter Miami proposes Fort Lauderdale training center ]

Vermes shipped Ike Opara, the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year and one of the two or three best defenders in MLS over his six-year stint in Kansas City, to Minnesota United in exchange for $900,000 in targeted allocation money with the potential for that figure to rise to $1 million after incentives. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported that the additional $100,000 is contingent upon Minnesota qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in its brief MLS history.

Opara made it known during the offseason that he would like to be paid more than the $325,000 base salary he collected in 2018, and requested that Vermes consider any trade offers that might allow him to do so elsewhere.

[ MORE: What did we learn from USMNT’s win over Panama? ]

While the potential of a seven-figure sum of Garber Bucks™ sounds like a massive amount of intraleague money — and it is — it’s also a fair price for a domestic defender of Opara’s quality.

  • December 2017: LAFC acquired Walker Zimmerman from FC Dallas for $500,000 in general allocation money, plus the no. 1 spot in the allocation order (the allocation spot was then traded to Orlando City SC for $400,000 in TAM)
  • March 2018: New York Red Bulls acquired Tim Parker from Vancouver Whitecaps for $500,000 in TAM, plus an international roster spot and midfielder Felipe Martins
  • January 2019: FC Cincinnati acquired Nick Hagglund from Toronto FC for $200,000 in GAM, $100,000 in TAM, plus the no. 1 spot in the allocation order

For the first time since bringing the Loons to MLS in 2017, head coach Adrian Heath has the foundational defender he’s sorely lacked en route to conceding 70 and 71 goals in successive seasons. While it’s a steep price to pay — calling it an “overpay” isn’t unfair — given Opara’s age (he’ll turn 30 before the 2019 season starts) and injury history, it’s a risk worth taking for Minnesota who are set to open a brand new stadium, Allianz Field, and desperately need to put forth a competitive product in year three. The case for “overpaying” being a worthwhile risk under these circumstances is an easy one to make.

As for the Sporting KC side of things, it’s yet another victory for world-renowned asset flipper Peter Vermes, who 1) acquired Opara for a second-round SuperDraft pick before the 2013 season; 2) enjoyed four-plus (healthy) seasons of one of the league’s best defenders while winning an MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups; 3) raked in a windfall of cash to be used in future signings and/or trades. Similar outgoing trades involving Dom Dwyer (up to $1.6 million), Benny Feilhaber ($400,000) and Diego Rubio ($300,000, plus midfielder Kelyn Rowe) have earned Vermes a reputation as a shrewd negotiator and maximizer of assets.

It remains to be seen whether or not Opara will get the raise he wants (and so thoroughly deserves), but one would assume Minnesota wouldn’t part with such a sum of money without intending to resolve any unhappiness which ultimately led to Monday’s trade.