The center back position was one of little concern for manager Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City fans entering the 2013 season. The squad was welcoming back the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year in Matt Besler, and a finalist for the same award in Aurelien Collin.
As the season unfolded, though, the trio proved to anchor the league's best defense, one that notched 13 shutouts and gave up just 30 goals on 301 shots in the regular season — an average of 102 minutes per goal.
Below is our grades for Besler, Collin, and Opara for 2013 on the basis of performance and expectations:
It was another outstanding year for Besler. Not only was the Kansas City native selected as an MLS All-Star, and a finalist for the Defender of the Year award for the second-straight year, Besler helped the U.S. Men's National Team qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as a regular starter for manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Sporting Kansas City sured up Besler early in the year, using the league's newly-created retention funds to renew his contract, and it's fair to say that money was not put the waste.
Besler conceded just 23 shots on goal in the regular season, an MLS best among defenders with 2,000 minutes played. He was also in the top three of the league per 90 minutes in successful passes (40.39), aerials won (3.22), touches (72.35), and chances created from the set play (12).
The only time Besler was ineffective was when he was away with the U.S. Men's National Team. But with them he did capture a World Cup berth and a CONCACAF Gold Cup title in 996 minutes played in 2013 — second among all Men's National Team players.
With 3,066 total minutes played in 2013, it's amazing to see how crisp and focused Besler remained all year. Some may argue that he had more mistakes than previous years, but when it came down to the big plays on the big stages, Besler was there to make goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen's job much easier.
The Frenchman may not even need a season recap; most fans will only recall the penalty kick — the first Collin had ever attempted in his professional career — that gave Sporting Kansas City its first MLS Cup title since 2000.
Collin once again impressed in 2013, ranking second in the league with 206 aerials and 136 aerials won, while ranking third with 199 headed clearances. Number 78 also found his offensive groove, scoring three regular-season goals and three more in this year's postseason. In all, Collin had 28 shots, which led all MLS defenders, with 21 of them headers, third most among all MLS players.
However, the season wasn't entirely perfect for the 27 year old. Collin was criticized early on for his attitude. In addition, he found himself several times in the early part of the season stopping on plays, only to raise his hand for an offsides call which would not be called.
Both would be addressed, though, and Collin would go on to play an integral part for the squad both defensively and offensively. In fact, Collin played the role of hero in two marquee match ups in the first half of the season, netting a gaming-winning header in New York against the Red Bulls (vital in terms of the Supporter's Shield race) and in Houston (ending the Dynamo's home unbeaten streak).
His form would place him in the starting XI in the MLS All-Star game in Kansas City — his second-straight All-Star selection — where he went the distance against AS Roma in a 3-1 loss. Flash forwarding to Dec. 7, Collin's second-half heroics were enough to earn the honor of MLS Cup MVP.
And if that's not enough, Collin launched his own fashion line this year, AC78.
AC78 fashion line grade: A+
From 2010 to 2012 with the San Jose Earthquakes, Ike Opara played in just 35 matches. The 24 year old was hindered by several nagging injuries that kept him off the pitch. He was a risky pickup, but was one of those "Vermes guys" that excel and get the job done with the right opportunity.
Opara's opportunities were many in 2013 thanks to yellow card suspensions and Besler's absences with the National Team. The American appeared in 18 games with 16 starts, both career highs in his fourth year as a professional.
If you didn't know much about Sporting Kansas City, you'd think Opara was apart of the system for several years now. Whether he was lined up beside Besler or Collin, he complimented the other nicely, especially with his big, 6-foot-2 stature.
Opara's biggest regular season contribution came on the road in Utah against Real Salt Lake. In the seventh minute of stoppage time, Opara made sure Sporting Kansas City weren't going to drop points in the tight Supporter's Shield race, rising up and meeting the Zusi corner, placing it past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The Wake Forest alum also had a game-winning goal in Nicaragua against Real Esteli in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage.
For a guy who wasn't expected to produce, Opara was absolutely deserving of the team's Newcomer of the Year award. Don't be surprised to see more of Opara in 2014 at center back.
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