College soccer is often blamed for stagnating the development of the sport's American talent, and not without good reason. In most countries, promising players are funneled into professional teams' development systems when they are in their teens. By the time these prospects are 18 — though usually a few years earlier — they're focusing all their energy on soccer under professional tutelage. In contrast, the best American teenage soccer talent is often steered toward college programs where the coaching can be hit-or-miss and where players have a host of responsibilities and distractions beyond soccer. By the time most emerge from college at 21 or 22, they are way behind the curve and actually a little old to be considered promising young prospects by international standards anymore.
Yet, for all the flack that college soccer receives, it also carries some underreported benefits. Players emerging from the American college system are generally more ready to handle the day-in, day-out challenges of being a professional athlete than those who have quit school as teenagers. As Greg Cochrane, a Galaxy rookie defender/midfielder who graduated from Louisville, explains, the biggest adjustment is what to do with the 22.5 hours a day when you're not playing.
"When you're done with practice, you have a lot of free time," he says. "Back in college, you had to go to class, you had to study, but here, you can really do almost whatever you please. Sometimes, you just get bored trying to figure out what to do." College also prepares many of these players for the rigors of working for low pay. Cochrane was a finance major, and his dad works in banking, "so I've always been pretty good with managing my budget. Also, this is the most money I've ever made in my life."
Opare majored in neuroscience at Michigan with thoughts of following his mother's path into medicine if soccer didn't pan out. Like many college prospects, he graduated in three and a half years, so as to be finished with school in time for MLS's draft in January of his senior year. After the Galaxy selected him, he had three days to pack up all his belongings and move to Southern California.
Opare spent over a month during the preseason living with Cochrane and striker Charlie Rugg, another recent college grad, in a nearby Marriott at the Galaxy's expense. At the time, none of the three had yet been offered a contract, and Opare was just concerned with making the team. His agent told him if he got cut, there would likely be teams in lower tiers of U.S. soccer that would be happy to pick him up, but Opare had his doubts. "I was thinking, If I get cut, do I even want to play soccer or do I just want to get a job or go to medical school?
In early March, Opare, Cochrane, and Rugg were all offered contracts with the Galaxy that would pay them the league minimum, deals that were presented as, in Opare's words, "Take it or leave it." They all took it.
Despite his elation at simply making the team, the first months of Opare's season were marked by frustration. He was struggling to get over a nagging hamstring injury he'd suffered at the MLS predraft combine, and playing only with the Galaxy's reserve team — a collection of fringe players who compete against players in similar circumstances on other MLS teams. As June rolled around, there seemed little reason for optimism: He was a fifth-choice central defender whose most notable accomplishment for the first team was one appearance as an unused substitute in a 2-0 loss in the U.S. Open Cup to the Carolina Railhawks, who play in the NASL, the country's second-tier soccer league.
But Opare has the one quality that is probably most indispensable for anyone with dreams of being a professional athlete: a belief in himself that borders on the delusional. Although this is often expressed in the sort of sports-world homilies that make it easy to ignore, when you are a guy who is not earning much and is dealing with injuries, spending most game days sitting in the stands in street clothes, an ability to ignore reality or at least view it through rose-tinted glasses is probably all that separates you from the dude sitting 20 rows behind you, eating a hot dog and drinking a beer.
"When I wasn't really playing, it wasn't disheartening," he says. "It added fuel to my fire. The opportunity will come sooner or later."
Opare's opportunity came on a big stage. At the beginning of August, the Galaxy competed in an exhibition tournament called the International Champions Cup and were matched up in their first game against global powerhouse Real Madrid. Opare was told during warm-ups that he'd start the second half.
"My first game with the Galaxy was in front of 60,000 fans," he says. Needless to say, it was a big leap from playing in MLS reserve league games to suddenly face a team that included the Brazilian former FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, French superstar Karim Benzema, and dazzling German playmaker Mesut Özil. "I was like, Wow, I'm actually a professional player playing in this game! These are the guys I play with on
[EA Sports'] FIFA!
I was like, I know your moves!"
Even though Benzema scored two second-half goals to seal what was an easy 3-1 victory for Real Madrid, Opare performed solidly enough to merit a return engagement, a week later against AC Milan. Again the Galaxy succumbed, this time 2-0, but Opare helped the team shut the Italian giants out in the second half.
Since then, Opare's stock has steadily risen on the Galaxy, and the recent injuries have given him further chance to stake his claim to a starting role, or at the very least, a significant role off the bench, once everyone gets healthy.
Opare's gifts as a player are easy to see in training. He's tall — 6'2" — and lean, and runs with an effortless gait that disguises just how fast he is. In a drill today, the team is split into three units of 10 players each. Each unit must work in a small space to keep the ball away from two players from an opposing unit. Once they string together 10 passes in a row, they can send a long ball to another unit. Unlike many defenders in the league, particularly big ones, Opare is comfortable with the ball at his feet and doesn't seem to get flustered in tight spaces.
Training can be a tricky proposition for young players looking to make their mark. There is a very fine line between playing hard and playing too hard. After all, how can a $35,000 guy like Opare go in full-tilt against Donovan or Keane, who are judged to be over 100 times more valuable to the team than he is?
"You can't," says Opare, smiling. "Fifty-fifty ball between me and Donovan or Robbie Keane, you just kind of…" He motions with his hands that he just lets them have it. "Before you go in for a tackle, you're thinking, He's worth millions. Let me get the other guy, the trialist
." He laughs. "That's the way all the players feel. They're very cautious. During practice, everyone's so tentative. When Robbie Keane gets the ball, no one touches him."