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Draft day: Opare’s journey from Ghana to the MLS

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 16, 2013

On a chilly November night at the U-M Soccer Complex, the Michigan men’s soccer team was locked in a scoreless draw in its regular-season finale against Michigan State. The Wolverines’ season had previously included a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory over Ohio State and a stunning upset of Indiana, the eventual national champion. But sitting a game below .500, Michigan needed a win to put itself in position for an NCAA Tournament berth. With only 20 minutes remaining, each passing second put the Wolverines in peril of missing the Big Dance in consecutive years for the first time since 2006-07.

Then, the unlikeliest of heroes rose up for Michigan. It wasn’t junior midfielder Fabio Pereira, who led the team in goals. It wasn’t sophomore midfielder Tyler Arnone, the first-team All-Big Ten selection. It wasn’t even junior forward T.J. Roehn, the Wolverines’ most prolific striker. No, it was senior defender Kofi Opare — face mask and all — leaping above a Spartan defender to head home the go-ahead goal. The Wolverines weathered a Michigan State rally to win, 1-0, and the momentum helped them reach the Big Ten championship game and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Opare’s game-winning strike as a defender epitomizes the long journey of his life. Born in Ghana but raised in South Africa, Opare was as far from American collegiate soccer as anyone on the planet. He grew up playing cricket, one of the rainbow nation’s most popular sports. But once in school, Opare and his brother joined their school’s soccer team and both began following the professional leagues. And when his family moved to the United States to pursue job opportunities, Opare had no choice but to focus on soccer because he couldn’t find many people who played cricket.

When Opare first stepped on campus as a student in 2009, former Michigan coach Steve Burns knew he had landed one of the best prospects of his career.

“We had high expectations for him,” Burns said, reflecting on his former player. “We thought he was gonna be a can’t-miss pro.”

Perhaps, then, Opare fell short of expectations. After being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and helping to guide the Wolverines to a program-best College Cup appearance the following year, Opare and Michigan struggled in 2011. Last season, a promising senior year encountered a setback when he suffered from appendicitis and later broke his nose.

So that’s why, on Nov. 3, Opare found himself wearing a clear, plastic mask as he headed the crucial goal past the Spartan goalkeeper.

He never turned into the star that Burns anticipated, but his talent didn’t go unnoticed. In early December, the defender was thrilled to receive the invitation to the Major League Soccer Combine in Florida. He is one of just three Big Ten players to earn a spot in the tryout.

Now, Opare is one step away from making his dream a reality. On Jan. 15, he returned from the MLS Player Combine in Florida where he showcased his talent to professional coaches and trainers. Thursday, Opare might be selected in the MLS SuperDraft. If he’s not, he’s anticipated to be picked up in the supplemental draft on Jan. 22. Burns said he “expects” Opare to be drafted.

“I was excited to receive the invite,” Opare said. “Obviously, I credit that to my teammates. I’d also like to dedicate it to my family, as well as my brother who I grew up playing with.”

And Burns, who texted his former player to congratulate him on the opportunity, expected that Opare would make a good impression on the MLS scouts.

“The thing that people really get excited about is when they first see Kofi, they see that he’s a really high-level athlete,” Burns said. “When you look at the role of a center back, Kofi fits that role very well.”

Even as a freshman, Opare committed himself to soccer like a professional athlete. Burns said that the young defender treated his studies and the people around him with incredible poise and has “done a really good job getting himself ready for this moment.”

Has he ever. In high school, Opare played for both his school and a club team — the St. Catharine’s Concord Gunners — leading both to championships. His success prompted an invitation to the U.S. under-20 squad. Opare is also a Canadian citizen, which could appeal to the three Canadian MLS franchises. And after reaching the NCAA Tournament twice, Opare feels like he has accomplished everything he came to do at Michigan.

“It’s a great feeling because you know all of those players who played before you and what they have contributed to the program,” he said. “I just wanted to contribute to that.”

It’s safe to say that Opare has left quite a mark on the soccer program. Despite last year’s injuries, Opare started 71 matches in his collegiate career and ranks fifth in program history for minutes played (6,411). He was a captain as a senior, defensive MVP in 2011 and played in more contests than all but 12 players in Michigan soccer’s 12-year history.

Despite all of the memories, Opare remembers his most cherished moments clearly. In 2010, the Wolverines compiled a 17-win season en route to a berth in the national semifinal — two firsts for the program. Opare’s only point of the year came on an assist in the quarterfinal match, a 3-2 overtime thriller over No. 3 Maryland.

Two years later, his surprise header against Michigan State made for another unforgettable experience.

But Opare’s four years at Michigan offered him more than just an opportunity to prove his worth as an athlete. The senior found time to dedicate himself to schoolwork and says he feels “fortunate” to attend a well-respected University. He expects to graduate with a degree in neuroscience, which Opare said led to numerous busy and stressful nights. But his friends and academic advisors helped him achieve his goals, and he will now leave Michigan with a variety of future opportunities.

And as Opare has excelled on and off the field, his peers continue to be impressed with his friendly and respectful demeanor. When asked about his accomplishments, Opare always credits his teammates and coaches for their support. But when the MLS invited 54 college seniors to compete in Florida, they knew clearly where Michigan’s talent lay — in a humble and unheralded center back.

Opare’s journey has spanned large parts of the world, quietly beginning in Ghana and South Africa and recently featuring a header that sent maize-clad fans wild. This week, he will learn his future while watching the draft online.

“Every kid, growing up and playing soccer, you want to try to push yourself to the highest level of competition you can play at,” Opare said. “It’s no different with me.”

Everyone has dreams. Opare might just see his come true.