See more of the story

Minnesota United players must arrive in their Allianz Field locker room and greet each other by 5:15 on game nights. When rookie defender Chase Gasper arrives with 10 minutes to spare, he takes a right turn inside and goes down the line of locker stalls, shaking each teammate's hand in the club's tradition until he reaches the seated veteran, Ike Opara.

"He's right side of the wall, furthest one back," Gasper said. "You shake Lo's hand, Dayne's hand, Kevin's hand, Romain's hand, Jan's hand, Vito's hand and then you get to Ike, and he's always got his headphones on, locked in. You have to tap him on the shoulder, even though you're in his line of vision, like, 'Hey, Ike, I'm here.'

"Everyone has their unique way of preparing for a game, but Ike is locked in, tunnel vision."

Last January, United management paid as much as $1 million in targeted allocation money to Sporting Kansas City for the 30-year-old Opara's towering presence, his ability to play the ball in the air, and an intensity that made him a member on MLS' Best XI and its Defender of the Year in 2017.

The socially conscious center back joined a team that also added veterans in midfielder Ozzie Alonso, right back Romain Metanire and former Premier League goalkeeper Vito Mannone. All in an attempt to mature a team and solidify the spine of a defense that allowed 141 goals in the team's first two losing MLS seasons.

On Thursday night, Opara returns to Kansas City. That's where he won the 2013 MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups during his six seasons there. His much-improved United team is second in the Western Conference and aimed at the playoffs with nine shutouts in MLS play. Its 36 goals allowed are tied for seventh fewest in the league.

Opara did not play when United defeated Sporting K.C. 4-1 in a U.S. Open Cup game at Allianz Field in June. This time he'll play against pals Benny Feilhaber, Tim Melia and Graham Zusi for the first time in Children's Mercy Park, a stadium he once called home.

"I've got a lot of emotions, excitement, anxiety, some nerves," Opara said. "It'll be nice to get back there for the first time and see fans, family, ex-teammates, people who helped me on the way of my journey in soccer and life. I've got nothing but gratitude. It's going to be emotional, but I'm excited."

Sporting K.C. traded Opara to Minnesota after he asked for a raise last winter. Three weeks after United swung a deal to acquire Alonso on waivers, it dealt for Opara by opening its targeted-allocation checkbook for at least $900,000. It is paying Opara $367,917 in total compensation to play this season.

"Some people thought we paid a lot of money for him," United coach Adrian Heath said. "I thought we got him cheap."

At 6-4, Opara is a presence on the field and in the locker room that veteran teammate Kevin Molino calls "massive." He praises Opara's leadership, communication skills and ability to hold himself and his teammates accountable.

"He has respect around the league, and he won a lot of trophies," Molino said. "When he talks to you, you don't have a choice but to listen. Hopefully, he keeps doing what he's doing and takes us to a championship."

Opara says he's in a "good place" now that "I got my footing" in a season when he moved himself and then his fiancé to a new life in a new city. With a history of concussions, Opara banged heads in the home opener, missed a game and since then has worn a protective headband. He married educator Erin Kautz in late May and will celebrate their union with friends and family after the season.

"I've been consistently playing at a level I want to be," he said. "I think there can still be another level and I'm going to keep pushing. When I came here, I said I was going to play my part in getting us where we want to go at the end of the year."

When asked what kind of impact he thinks he has made this season, Opara said: "I don't know, a positive one. That's what I set out to do: Be a guy who can be relied upon and help the team grow. I'd like to say a big one, but there has been a lot of guys who have performed. It's not just myself."

But don't underestimate Opara's contributions. Heath hasn't. He calls Opara one of MLS' best central defenders, a player who fits the team's aim to add talent good enough to play for the league's top six teams.

"He's everything we thought he'd be," Heath said. "It's an old saying, but the game is won in both boxes and he's fantastic in both. He has good leadership quality, better than I thought because people told me he was a really quiet guy. He's not. When he's got nothing to say, he doesn't. But when he's got something to say, he has an opinion.

"Used to winning, a great professional, 30 years of age. He's going to be fine for us the next few years."

Opara is quiet, with a stare that penetrates when he's preparing for a game, as Gasper and others know nightly.

"He's loud when he wants to be," Mannone said. "He has the mask of a quiet guy, but he's not."

Opara acknowledges a turn toward the visitors' locker room Thursday in Kansas City will be "very, very weird" and suggests he'll possibly find his way to the home team's room eventually. Essentially a co-host on a podcast with Fielhaber and former Sporting teammate Sal Zizzo, Opara either way plans to say hello to his former mates on the field.

"If I can get close to them on the field, I'll probably give them a shot and I'll probably run my mouth a little bit, just for the podcast," he said. "Shameless plug there."