It’s been a week since Ike Opara asked Sporting Kansas City to “consider trading him.” Peter Vermes responded, “right now, with our roster, I’m not shopping anybody.” He continued, “these are the kind of conversations that go on all the time at the end of the year. Everybody wants more money. That’s not abnormal.”
It seems pretty clear that is what this is, a ploy to get additional money. It’s understandable why Opara would want a raise — though he did just get one before the 2018 season. He is actually signed through 2020 with a team option for 2021. In 2016 he made $131,250.00, in 2017 it was $150,000.00 and in 2018 it more than doubled to $342,916.63.
Ike already getting a raise is likely not the issue. The issue is likely what the other center backs on the roster are making. Matt Besler made $783,250.00 in 2018, but Opara knew Besler was making a lot more than him when he agreed to the deal. What he didn’t know is that Emiliano Amor would play so poorly and upset Vermes so much that he’d be jettisoned and replaced with a La Liga veteran. That player is Andreu Fontas, who is making $999,999.96. Nearly $1 million to be Opara and Besler’s backup.
When Fontas was signed it was rumored that he may actually be a replacement for Besler, not Opara. Besler was on the final year of his deal he signed after the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But instead, Besler signed an extension for two more years. It’s unknown what the new contract for Besler will pay as he, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza were in unique situations where they couldn’t get a raise outside of Sporting KC. We’ll know what they ultimately got paid when the MLS Players Union releases the first set of 2019 salary data in April.
Why is Opara Paid So Much Less?
First, we need to address why Opara, who is the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year, is paid so much less than his center back partner and also his backup. It’s 100% due to injuries. Just look as his career stats and it’s easy to see.
Ike Opara Career MLS Stats
In his first six seasons in Major League soccer he played just 62 games (42 starts) for 4,245 minutes. That’s an average of 10 games played a year for just an average of 707.5 minutes each season. In his first three season with Sporting KC after the team traded a second round pick for him (which was worth slightly more back in 2012 than draft picks are now) Opara was considered by some to be a bust. The flashes of brilliance were there, but Ike simply couldn’t stay healthy.
In the two years since then he was the MLS Defender of the Year and he took a step back in 2018, but for the most part he was healthy during these two seasons. It’s very clear if he can stay healthy, he deserves to make more money.
What is Ike Opara’s Trade Value?
First things first, Opara would obviously get a raise if he were traded (and may very well get one if he stays). There are 51 defenders across the league that are paid better than Opara (this is based on the MLSPU database of defenders with Brek Shea removed who is essentially a winger). That counts center backs and fullbacks. It’s very clear that Opara isn’t the 52nd best defender in the league (Fontas is the fourth highest paid defender behind Michael Mancienne, Rod Fanni and Jorgen Skvelvik for reference). It’s not really a question if Opara is underpaid, I think it’s fair he probably is (if he’s healthy).
The real question is what would Opara be worth to another team in the league if he was traded. We have a few points of reference, but the most recent is the Kendall Waston trade from the Vancouver Whitecaps to FC Cincinnati. Waston was traded to Cincy for $450,000 in General Allocation Money, $300,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and an international roster spot with incentives built in for another $75,000 in GAM. Per Sam Stejskal, league sources are valuing international spots at $150,000-200,000 in allocation money — which type isn’t clear. As a general reminder, GAM is worth roughly 1.5 times as much as TAM.
There have been other trades for center backs of a higher quality caliber, but you have to go back a year. Walker Zimmerman moved from FC Dallas to Los Angeles Football Club for $250,000 in GAM and $250,000 in TAM. Laurent Ciman went from the Montreal Impact to LAFC for two players. Ciman is likely on the same level, but part of that trade was salary relief. Zimmerman had a good year, but was likely valued much lower than Opara (or his former center back partner Matt Hedges) when he was dealt to LA.
So Waston is the best comparable out there both for recency and level of play. They are both capable of great things but they also both make big blunders at times.
So assuming GAM is worth 1.5 times TAM, instead of saying TAM or GAM going forward, we’ll call everything eTAM — or equivalent TAM — where I take all GAM and turn it into 1.5 TAMs (confused yet?). On the conservative end we’ll assume that the international slot is worth just $150,000 in TAM and the incentives aren’t met. That means on the low end the Waston deal is worth $1,125,000 in eTAM. If we go with the best outcomes ($200,000 for an international slot in GAM instead of TAM and that the full $75,000 in additional GAM is earned) then the total skyrockets to $1,387,500 in eTAM. That’s a lot of Garber Bucks.
And that’s just if we are talking money. There is also the possibility Ike could be traded for a player or players plus money that could be used to construct the roster in the future. If you think that Dom Dwyer money didn’t help build the roster we saw in 2018, then you are sorely mistaken.
So Should Sporting KC Trade Opara?
I think if a big enough offer comes along, anything is possible. The last thing Vermes wants is problems in the locker room. If he perceives Opara is unhappy and they can’t work out a raise for him that’s suitable for all sides, I think Opara would get traded. Vermes essentially said as much.
“If a deal makes sense, I’ll consider it,” Vermes said. “If it doesn’t, I’m good with where we’re at. The [salary] cap is great. We have money and we have players. I’m not really concerned.”
Opara won’t be easy to replace though. The team is down to just four center backs in Opara, Besler, Fontas and Graham Smith. Gone are Brad Evans and Amer Didic. In 2018 they also lost Amor and Matt Lewis mid-year. Even if Opara doesn’t leave it’s a position that needs reinforcing.
If we just look at MLS, there aren’t a lot of available options that look to be good enough to be the third center back on the roster. In available free agents there is former SKC man Aurelien Collin. Nothing about his recent play suggests he can still play on an MLS level in any sort of consistent nature — though the nostalgia would be fun.
The Re-Entry Draft, of which Stage 2 takes place this week, is littered with former SKC players like Lawrence Olum & Kevin Ellis. Ellis likely burned his bridges in KC but Olum could come back as depth. There are also some young draft picks who didn’t work out in Jonathan Campbell (Chicago Fire) and Joshua Yaro (Philadelphia Union). Another option is former Colorado Rapid and Houston Dynamo CB Jared Watts. None of them are remotely close to Opara, but that’s the in-league options for CB depth.
Personally, I wouldn’t trade Opara. I really like his athleticism next to either Besler or Fontas. They can read the game and position themselves while Opara uses his speed to cover for Zusi being way up the field. Sure Opara has made mistakes but that’s bound to happen with almost anyone in MLS. I just don’t know if there is enough time to develop chemistry between a new partner for Besler without really hampering SKC’s ability to explode out of the gate in the CONCACAF Champions League against Toluca.
One never knows what will happen, and if enough money is on the table I wouldn’t be stunned to see a trade, but I expect Opara back in 2019.