Well, that happened. Never again will “We like Ike!” ring out from 20,000 fans at Children’s Mercy Park. (Well, at least not for the foreseeable future.)
Just when we all came to accept that Sporting Kansas City was probably done making roster moves ahead of the 2019 MLS season, the club announced Monday night that they traded center back Ike Opara to Minnesota United for 900K in targeted allocation money (TAM), with another potential 100K TAM in incentives.
I’m going to start with all the reasons this trade scares me before moving to the happier part of the story where I argue why this is the right move for SKC. So bear with me as we go through the rough parts first.
Why I hate this trade
Oh Ike, how we’ll miss you! It’s no secret to anyone who has followed Sporting KC for any period of time that Ike Opara was one of the biggest fan-favorites on the team. From his playful Twitter personality to his high-level play on the field, Ike endeared himself to Kansas City fans in a way that few had before.
Now that my face full of tears have dried pic.twitter.com/4MVGWSl4mm— Ike Opara (@ikeopara) January 29, 2019
I mean, if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, I don’t know what will.
On the field, Ike’s perseverance is arguably unmatched in MLS. He twice suffered two major leg injuries, forcing him to miss nearly the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons. Heck, he even contemplated retirement after the second injury. But Ike fought back, returning to action mid-way through the 2016 season before winning MLS Defender of the Year in his 2017 campaign.
And man, that 2017 season was something special. It was the first real glimpse at what Ike could do when seeing consistent time on the field. Prior to 2017, Ike had never made more than 16 MLS starts or seen more than 1,542 minutes in a season. In his Defender of the Year campaign, Ike started all 30 games he appeared in, amassing 2,700 minutes played and tying a career high three goals scored while anchoring the league’s best defense that allowed only 29 goals. Sure, 2018 might not have been quite up to 2017 standards, but Ike was still pretty darn good alongside Matt Besler last year.
The obvious question many SKC fans have, myself included, is where does this trade leave the defense? Sure, we know Peter Vermes went out and signed 29-year-old Spanish center back Andreu Fontas last summer to a massive $1 million per year deal. You don’t throw around that kind of cash for someone you don’t hold in high regard, and you certainly don’t stash a player making that much money on the bench.
But outside of the salary, we don’t know too much about Fontas. Sure, we can look up his old highlights, and we’ve heard about his years of experience for Celta Vigo in Spain’s La Liga and the UEFA Europa League. But we haven’t seen his talents manifest on the field alongside Matt Besler yet. He made just two appearances for 92 minutes in 2018.
This offseason, SKC brought in 26-year-old Hungarian center back Botond Barath, which at the time fueled the rumors that Ike might be out the door. Botond stands at an imposing 6’2”, the same as Ike, but he’s never played professionally for any team outside of his hometown club Budapest Honved FC of the Hungarian first division. Will his talents translate to such a physical league as MLS where he’ll go up against quality strikers the likes of Josef Martinez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kei Kamara, and more?
With such a condensed schedule in 2019 thanks to CONCACAF Champions League play, the US Open Cup, and a shortened regular season due to the new MLS schedule, Sporting KC will have to rely on a rotation at CB between Besler, Fontas, Barath, and second year man Graham Smith, who made sporadic appearances in 2018. What was considered a position of depth can now be looked at with a bit of skepticism and uncertainty.
Lastly, it’s not like Ike is that old. At only 29, he’s right in the middle of his prime as a center back. He’s only a year removed from being named the best defender in MLS. Anytime you lose a player of that quality, it’s going to affect your team in some way. His partnership with Besler was something to behold, and the defense was clearly at its best when those two anchored the back line alongside Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic.
Why I love this trade
Okay, deep breath. Still with me? We got that out of the way. Now to the good parts, I promise.
Yes, we all loved Ike and will miss him dearly. But Peter has never been shy about saying that no player on a roster is untouchable if the right deal comes along.
And man, was this the right deal to come along.
Sporting KC CASHED IN on Ike Opara, bringing in at minimum $900k in TAM, but up to $1 million in TAM if Minnesota United make the 2019 MLS playoffs, per Jeff Carlisle of ESPN.
Remember what Sporting KC gave up to acquire Ike Opara back in 2013? Our own Mike Kuhn is here to remind you.
this is also another example of PV buying low and selling high. Opara was acquired for a 2nd round pick in 2013, 33rd overall, that was used by SJ on Dan Delgado, who never played a game or even signed for SJ— Mike (@downthebyline) January 29, 2019
That’s not a bad bit of business. At all.
When Sporting KC traded away Dom Dwyer in the summer of 2017, tons of people wondered where the goals would come from and how Peter would replace him. Well, despite no big name DP #9 signing ever materializing, Sporting KC went on to set a club record for goals in 2018.
More recently, SKC traded away another fan favorite in Benny Feilhaber when he was sent to LAFC. It was only after the Benny trade that Sporting KC signed DP midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, who, were it not for an injury that sidelined him for nearly three months, might have challenged for MLS Newcomer of the Year. (Okay, Zlatan still would’ve won because Zlatan, but Felipe could’ve been #2!)
From a pure financial standpoint, Chad Smith broke down how the Ike deal stacks up to other recent center back transactions around MLS, and, in summary, it holds up pretty well. ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman seems to think so, too.
Of course, Taylor is right that acquiring TAM is one thing, but using it is another. And TAM can’t just be pocketed by the club. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it currency.
Not to get too technical here, but the thing with TAM is it’s reserved for players that earn more than the maximum budget charge ($530,000 in 2019). That means Sporting KC won’t be able to use this money on just anyone, but rather they’ll either have to use it to buy down one of the current DPs (Felipe Gutierrez, Yohan Croizet, and Roger Espinoza [Editor: it’s likely based on salaries Russell and Nemeth are actually going to be DPs over Espinoza and Croizet]), something they’d only do if they were bringing in a new DP, or sign a new TAM player that makes between $530,000 and $1.53 million.
In theory, that should be a pretty great player, even if not a DP. I wonder if there’s a position, maybe one in the attacking half of the field in particular, where SKC might like to bring in a quality TAM-level or higher player...
Where does that leave us?
Great question. In summary, Sporting KC are going to be just fine.
Of course, we’ll all be sad when Ike isn’t with the team come February 21 when Sporting KC faces Toluca FC in their first competitive match of 2019 in the CONCACAF Champions League. It may be even harder to see Ike take the field at Children’s Mercy Park on August 22 wearing Minnesota United colors.
But despite all our emotions, this was probably the best move for all parties involved. Ike gets to go to a team where he’ll be a shoe-in starter and may even get a significant raise. Sporting KC get a good bit of TAM to play with and will now slot in their million dollar signing into Ike’s spot.
All that is to say, in Peter we trust! He’s yet to give us a reason over the long-term to doubt his trades, even when a fan-favorite goes out the door. Why start now?