Disaster seemingly struck early on last night for D.C. United in their match up against the LA Galaxy. United had an opportunity to play LA at the perfect time, with Gyasi Zardes, Robbie Keane, and Jaime Penedo all away on international duty. Having failed to beat LA since a 4-1 win in June 2008, the time looked right for all three points.
Until center back Steve Birnbaum went down in the second minute.
Rising up to win a header from a corner, Birnbaum came down and landed awkwardly, and immediately grabbed his ankle. When the stretcher came out for him, it signaled the end of the day for the second pick of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
And up stepped Kofi Opare.
"Kofi [Opare] is a big story line today," United manager Ben Olsen said after the match. "He hasn't had a lot of minutes for us or in the league, but from what I've seen of Kofi, he's a gamer. He has a mentality that he can step in and do the job, and tonight I thought he was great. It was a good match-up for him tonight."
Opare put in a solid 85 minute shift on Saturday night, as he helped United keep LA at bay as the Black-and-Red won 1-0 late on, thanks to a Chris Pontius header.
Indeed, many United supporters might not know much about Opare. Since being acquired in a trade with LA last July, Opare had yet to appear in a MLS match for United. He had started and gone 90 minutes in the Champions League games last fall, but the last time he played in a MLS match was when he started for LA against Sporting Kansas City on July 19th, 2014.
So it was a pleasant surprise when he entered the match in the fifth minute and hardly missed a beat alongside Bobby Boswell. The Galaxy weren't without their chances, but Opare and Boswell quickly gelled along with the rest of the back line and keeper Bill Hamid to help United keep their second clean sheet of the season.
"Unfortunately, Steve went down with an injury, and I was the next center back in line," Opare said after the game. "So I had to make sure I was ready to go. I did a couple of sprints to get my heart rate going, and I tried to get in and contribute to the team. I'm glad we got the victory, we fought for each other, and it was definitely nice to win today."
Despite the absence of Keane and Zardes up top, LA were still doing LA things throughout most of the game. With Alan Gordon and Jose Villarreal given starts up top, LA fired off 17 shots during the course of the game. But thanks to Stefan Ishizaki hitting the post, and the presence of Opare in the back line, only five of those shots were on target, and Hamid was able to make a save on each and every one of them.
After Jeff Parke went down with an injury last season, Birnbaum quickly stepped in, and was part of the stingiest defense in MLS last year. So when Opare was acquired in a trade for some depth at the center back position, the pairing of Boswell and Birnbaum was too good for Olsen to break up during the MLS season.
Instead, Opare had to bide his time on the bench, while getting 270 minutes in Champions League action as United easily won their group. He was kept on by United over the winter, and when his time finally came on Saturday night, he was ready for the opportunity.
"It's part of the profession. It takes patience, it takes hard work," Opare said of having to wait for his opportunity to play. "That's something I try to do each and every single day. Come to training, and train hard, because you never know what might happen. I am just trying to put myself in the best position possible to contribute if my name got called."
And he might get another couple of opportunities with Birnbaum on the mend. After the game, Olsen said that Birnbaum had sprained his ankle, but that the timetable for his return had yet to be determined. With a quick turnaround before a game in Orlando on Friday, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Opare in the starting lineup.
But for now, it's time to savor the three points against his old teammates.
"I felt relieved," Opare said of Pontius' goal. "We defended for a while, and with the end of the game getting near, it could have gone either way. They can score, we can score. So when the ball went into the back of the net, a lot of emotions went through my head. I'm going to sleep a little easy tonight knowing we got the win."