Ike Opara
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Opara repays San Jose's faith with game-winner

Before the 2010 season began, Earthquakes general manager John Doyle gave MLSsoccer.com his assessment of rookie defender Ike Opara.

“He’s going to be just fine,” a grinning Doyle said, putting an emphasis on the last two words that made it clear he feels the former All-American’s ceiling is significantly higher than simply middle-of-the-road.

In just his second professional game, Opara started to live up to that assessment. His size and speed helped keep Chicago’s powerful pair of forwards, Collins John and Brian McBride, off the scoresheet. And in the 82nd minute, he headed home his first MLS goal to secure a 2-1 San Jose victory that spoiled Chicago’s home opener.

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“I think it was just a huge relief for the whole team,” Opara told MLSsoccer.com when asked about his emotional response to career goal No. 1. “It wasn’t just me; we were battling the whole game to put that one away.”

Opara originally moved up to provide another target for a San Jose corner kick, but hung around the box as the Quakes maintained possession. Eventually, Bobby Convey stepped in from the right wing and delivered a perfectly weighted ball across the goalmouth that Opara was able to neatly tuck away at the far post.

“The ball was on the wing for a good couple minutes, it seemed like,” Opara said. “Arturo [Alvarez] had it, Bobby had it, and I was just recirculating my run. Bobby put a world-class ball in. He really set me up for success.”

It wasn’t all perfect for Opara. He nearly put Chicago ahead in the 48th minute when he uncorked a back pass that wasn’t where goalkeeper Joe Cannon expected it. Cannon wanted it at his feet, while Opara wanted to play it wide in case of a bad hop. The ball wound up going out for a corner, but missed being an own goal by maybe a foot.

Then, with the score tied at 1-all in the 73rd minute, Opara lost a long, cross-field pass from fellow rookie defender Steve Beitashour in the lights of Toyota Park. That allowed Patrick Nyarko to steal the ball practically off Opara’s foot and drive into the penalty box. Cannon came off his line and Nyarko fed Collins John, who blasted away from 15 yards out, only to see Jason Hernandez making a right-footed kick save at the line.

“As a young guy in this league, you’re going to go through growing pains,” Hernandez said. “There’s a maturing process. We do our best to help [Opara] along, and he responded great. He made one or two mistakes tonight, but he followed that up with one or two great plays, and we’ll take that any day of the week. He did a great job tonight.”

The same could be said for plenty of the Earthquakes, who erased the memories of their disappointing season-opening 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake two weeks ago.

Joey Gjertsen, inserted into the starting lineup, forced the action on multiple occasions, creating San Jose’s best scoring chance in the first half—a one-on-one chance in the 37th minute that Chicago goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra did well to stop—and chasing down a weak Chicago back pass in the 49th minute, starting a chain of events that ended with Alvarez collecting a loose ball at the top of the box and chipping it home over Dykstra for a short-lived 1-0 lead.

Gjertsen’s efforts were matched on the opposite wing by Convey, who called being pulled at halftime of the RSL defeat “the most embarrassing and disappointing thing” in his 11-year pro career.

Saturday, Convey went from box to box, providing critical help in the defensive third but also stirring up the Quakes’ attack.

“When he’s dynamic and making plays, he’s one of our most dangerous guys, one of our best assets,” Hernandez said of Convey. “Tonight proved it. He did a lot of things that aren’t going to show up on the stat sheet, but he made a lot of good runs, had a lot of good passes, and was really a thorn in side of Chicago’s defense. If Bobby continues on that road, he’s going to give a lot of teams trouble.”

San Jose made the most of it, delivering the Fire their first loss in five home openers at Toyota Park. It was the Quakes’ first win in Chicago since 1999. Next up is another shot at RSL – this time in U.S. Open Cup action on Wednesday.