CARSON, Calif. — Through the first six months of the MLS season, Kofi Opare trained, worked and watched as he waited for his chance to get into the field. Now that he has done just that, starting each of the last two games in central defense, don’t expect him to simply hand his spot in the team over without a fight.
Opare has started in the Galaxy’s last two league matches in place of the injured Leonardo, who has been dealing with left adductor fatigue. Starting alongside Omar Gonzalez, the defender has slotted seamlessly into the back four for the Galaxy as they’ve conceded just a single goal with the rookie in the starting XI over that span.
“I’m making progress and playing with Omar, Todd, Sean, and Jaime makes my job a lot easier,” said Opare, who has appeared in three of LA’s last five league matches, making his MLS debut in the 1-0 home loss to Colorado on September 7. “They give me confidence, but it takes repetition because the more that I play then the more my confidence builds and the more that I get familiar with the guys and improve.
Opare’s success over the last two matches mirrors another rookie success story of a year ago. Then, it was Tommy Meyer who stepped in after A.J. DeLaGarza suffered left knee injury in late September that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Meyer would go on to start the final three regular season games of 2012 and then all six games in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs as they marched to their second straight MLS Cup championship.
Like Meyer a year earlier, Opare has earned rave reviews for his ability to develop into a successful center back since the start of the season. In his two starts, Opare has shown no semblance of rookie jitters or nerves, using his size and athleticism to help shut down the likes of Erick Torres of Chivas USA and Portland’s Darlington Nagbe.
The most important part of the rookie’s development has been the familiarity that he has gained over the past few months thanks to his appearances in the Guinness International Champions Cup and CONCACAF Champions League as well as his league outings.
“He’s improved so much from the beginning of the season. He’s stepping up at the end of the season when we need him. There have been injuries and you never know what’s going to happen, so to have him step in like he has been a big boost for our team,” said defender Todd Dunivant. “He’s a good combination of size and speed, so I think the biggest thing is just having him get confident and having him to continue to get more comfortable in his own skin would make a big difference.”
Although the rookie has become an important member of Bruce Arena’s squad, there are still aspects of his game that the Galaxy head coach would like to see Opare (who turns 23 on Oct. 12) improve upon. Chief among those are his distribution skills. Arena would like to see Opare emulate Gonzalez, who has become adept at firing pinpoint diagonal passes from defense end of the field to spark Galaxy attacks.
“When I’m given the space to try to advance the ball, I need to take it. To force the [attackers] not to drop as far back to take the ball, but rather keep them up the field,” said Opare. “I think that having the confidence with the ball and making those passes up field would help, so each and every single day, I try to improve and get better.”
There’s no doubt that the rookie has held his own, but whether he’s starting in central defense when the Galaxy return to action on Oct. 16 when they face the Montreal Impact still remains to be seen. Leonardo went 45 minutes in LA’s Reserve League victory over Chivas USA on Monday and is steadily inching closer to full fitness.
Opare and Leonardo aren’t the only options however as Meyer filled in admirably when Gonzalez went down with a left hip strain in the first half last Sunday while DeLaGarza is continuing to battle back from a dislocated left elbow.
“We have four or five good center backs on this team and if anyone is down and misses time then there’s an opportunity for someone else to step in,” said Leonardo. “If that person does well, it just makes it harder on other people to train harder and get that spot back. It’s a good situation for the team to have this team, but it means that I’ll need to work hard to impress Bruce.”
The idea of a potential competition for spots in central defense doesn’t faze Opare. He’s simply of the mind that each day in training is battle in itself.
“We’re all fighting for the starting position and every single day there is competition,” said Opare. “It’s great for us and for myself personally, having the guys healthy again. Every day is a challenge and a chance to prove to the coaches that we deserve to be in that position.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com