For its first two seasons, Minnesota United's defense was a sieve, leaking goals at an astounding rate (141 total) and limiting the club in its quest to stay alive for the postseason.
After a year with center back Ike Opara marshaling the defense, now the club has one of the league's stingiest units, and Opara has the hardware to show for it.
Opara was named MLS Defender of the Year for the second time in three seasons, and while he's not the only reason for the drastic change in fortunes for the club, he's a big reason why it will host a first-round playoff game this weekend.
The 30-year-old Opara, who also won the award in 2017 with Sporting Kansas City, beat LAFC's Walker Zimmerman and Atlanta United's Miles Robinson comfortably to become the fourth player in league history to win the honor multiple times (Robin Fraser, Carlos Bocanegra, Chad Marshall).
Minnesota took a risk in spending big for Opara, who has been injury-prone in his career but is as steady as they come when fit. The Loons traded $900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to Sporting KC–with an additional $100,000 set to be added to the tally if Minnesota made the playoffs this season. That happened, so it wound up being a $1 million outlay overall for a player on a contract worth over $360,000 in 2019. That number is reportedly going to rise, too, with The Athletic reporting that Minnesota and Opara have agreed to terms on a new, more lucrative deal.
As long as he's healthy, keeping out goals and scoring the occasional one–he's scored three in each of the last three seasons and is a chief aerial threat off set pieces–it'll be continue to be worth it.