Anticipating a packed early 2019 season schedule of CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 home-and-away matches against a formidable Toluca FC, the Liga MX Clausura runners-up, and the early MLS campaign, Sporting Kansas City was “ahead of the game.”
The acquisition of Hungarian right-channel center back Botond Barath was in the works to provide needed depth behind stalwart Ike Opara. With those two on the right and Spaniard Andreu Fontas and team captain Matt Besler on the left, Sporting was securely deep at both critical center back positions for the first time in years. Injuries would not be a worry, and the option to rotate players to keep them fresh was available.
But then Opara came into Technical Director and Manager Peter Vermes’ office and asked for a new contract.
The request, if granted, would mean that Opara would have a third new salary in less than three years. After a series of injuries had limited his impact in 2014 and 2015, Opara broke through in 2016. Subsequently, Sporting gave the now 29-year-old a new contract, raising his salary from $131,250 a year to $150,000. Then, after his MLS Best XI and Defender of the Year 2017 season, Opara was rewarded with a $192,000 jump to $342,000 a season, extending his stay with Sporting KC from 2018 to the end of this season, with a club option for 2020.
“We were ahead of the game. It was not part of the plan to be moving Ike on at this time,” said Vermes by teleconference with media Tuesday afternoon after training from Scottsdale, Arizona.
Sporting’s plan was in place and moving forward, and it was explained to Opara, who was likely motivated by the new contracts signed by fellow core players Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and Ilie Sanchez, as well as Fontas’s dollars-short-of-a-million-per-year- contract.
“We understood, at that time, what he was asking for and explained to him that we had a plan that was created prior to the 2018 season that was looking towards 2019 and 2020,” said Vermes. “If you go back and look at the players that we had re-signed or signed within our team throughout the 2018 year, you can see that there was a plan in place to keep the core group together.”
“When we had our discussion, we said we had some targets we are going after at the end of the 2018 season that we want to include in our team in 2019 and once all that is finished, we could circle-back and reevaluate where everything is and have a discussion about what we could or couldn’t do,” Vermes continued.
The plan, initially, was not to move Opara.
“I was disappointed in the way the situation was dealt with from he and his agent in that we had a discussion in late November where this topic was brought up, and, at that time, he never asked to be traded to another team,” Vermes related. “He actually stated that he wanted to finish his career here in Kansas City. And I made it very clear to him that we had no interest in trading him.”
Yet on December 10, an article on espn.com by Jeff Carlisle stated that Opara had asked Kansas City for a trade.
Vermes was not pleased. “I was disappointed that it became an issue in the public, which is not something we do here at the club,” he stated.
“Unfortunately, that threw us into a course of action that did not give us a lot of wiggle room. It’s one of the reasons why we went the way we went,” stated Vermes. “I’ll say this again, and I’ll say it as long as I’m here, and I’m not saying that Ike ever said this, because he never did, but if a player doesn’t want to be here, I don’t want him here. Pretty simple.”
However, even recently, there was plenty of discussion between Sporting and Opara.
“I was very specific with Ike recently and told him the situation could go one of three ways, in no particular order: He stays in contract and plays here. We find a solution internally to bridge the gap of what he was looking for and what we could do and were willing to do. We take an opportunity for a trade if the deal is correct for the club,” Vermes intimated.
The deal for up to $1,000,000 in Targeted Allocation Money was eventually consummated after Minnesota United upped their offer. But players were offered for Opara by multiple teams. However, none of them fit with Sporting’s plan.
“Ones people were presenting were duplicates of what we already had and probably not the same quality and/or in positions we didn’t need,” said Vermes. “And there were a few that were not only not [better than what we had] but had an injury history we wouldn’t want to take on.”
Even though Sporting’s original plan is partly derailed by Opara’s jettison, Vermes feels comfortable.
“I feel comfortable with the guys that we have. But a roster is never completed, it is a living, breathing group of players because things always change within a team. We are constantly looking to improve our roster,” he said. ”…I felt more comfortable with Ike being part of that, but the fact that he’s not here doesn’t change the way that we are going about getting ready for this upcoming season, and, more importantly, this first game against Toluca.”
The expectation, implied by Vermes, is for Sporting KC to use the significant TAM according to past patterns, e.g. supplementing the squad via Homegrowns, judicial salary adjustments or buydowns, or via smart, fitting additions.
Opara’s loss, however, does not necessarily mean first-round MLS SuperDraft pick Kamar Marriott – a center back – will be signed.
“I don’t have an opinion on whether [our three draft picks] can make our team or not. I would reserve the right to have the opportunity to go through the preseason and see those guys more at the moment.”