Feature photo taken from Kofi Opare’s Instagram.
Every professional soccer player has that one defining moment in their career that sticks with them for the rest of their lives. For defender Kofi Opare, that moment came in the form of a game-winning goal on Oct. 16, 2013.
In his fourth appearance as a rookie with the LA Galaxy, Opare recorded his first professional goal in a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact.
When LA was awarded a corner in the 68th minute of the tied game, standout goal scorer Robbie Keane was the obvious choice to put one in the back of the net. But it was not Keane who sealed the victory.
After a few hurried touches from Galaxy teammates, the ball rolled to the top of the six-yard box between Keane and Opare. In one quick moment, Opare turned and shot a low ball into the back of the net.
“I took the ball off Robbie Keane’s foot,” Opare said. “I literally took it from him and put the ball in the back of the net.”
The first professional goal is something special for any player, but this goal held extra importance for Opare.
“It was a goal to honor my friend that passed away a couple days before that game,” Opare said. “I scored the goal for him.”
Two days before, Opare received news that his long-time friend Arif Merani had been killed while changing a tire on his way home from Thanksgiving with his family.
After the news of his friend’s death, Opare wrote on Merani’s Facebook wall: “Hey buddy, I’m going to score for you tomorrow.” He went out the day of the game and made a custom t-shirt to wear under his jersey that read “RIP Arif.”
“I told myself, ‘OK. I am going to score today and I am going to celebrate his life,’” Opare said. “I am going to let the rest of the world know who Arif was.’”
After the goal, Opare rushed toward the corner and lifted his shirt revealing the tribute to his hometown friend.
“To this day, that was my best goal,” Opare said. “To this day, people back in Canada still talk about it. [Arif’s] parents have that newspaper article of me celebrating my goal that said ‘RIP.’ They have that framed in their home.”
Opare’s brother Nana was in the crowd for Kofi’s emotional first goal.
“I told him he had to score,” Nana said. “[Opare] said ‘don’t worry.’”
Nana, who is one of Opare’s biggest influences, is enrolled in the doctoral program at UCLA. Opare lived with Nana while he played for the Galaxy in 2013 and 2014, but the brothers’ close relationship goes back to their lives in Africa.
Born on a Friday in Ghana, Opare is the second of three sons. A year after his birth, the Opares left their home and headed south for a better life. They settled in Pretoria, South Africa.
Growing up with Nana, Opare has always had a competitive drive — and not just in soccer. In fact, soccer was not even his first love.
“Growing up, cricket was my love,” Opare said. “I played at a really competitive level in South Africa. Honestly, I thought I was going to be a professional cricket player.”
Nana recounted teaching Opare everything he knows about the game growing up. He said Opare was always a competitive player with a drive to get better.
“I was a little boy and I taught him [Kofi] the game myself,” Nana said. “He was very competitive because I am his big brother. He wanted to impress me and try hard. He became very good very quickly because he learns well.”
Nana had to stop battling against his brother because Opare had gotten too good. The brothers found other ways to compete.
Opare introduced his brother to the FIFA video games in 1996, and every year when Nana returned home for the holiday season, the brothers would engage in a friendly tournament of FIFA matches. The games were very back and forth; the winner always received bragging rights until the next match.
“It was always friendly, never malicious,” his brother said.
Although competitive, the Opare brothers have a special bond, and Opare respects his brother’s critiques and opinions, especially when it comes to soccer.
“We would go in the back yard and work on touches. That is what helped push my interest and that is what helped push me to achieve,” Opare said. “He is a coach, not in the actual sense, but he is someone who is very knowledgeable about the game.”
To this day, the Opare brothers talk after almost every game.
Opare started taking soccer seriously in 2002 when his family moved from South Africa to Newark, New Jersey. He credits the soccer environment at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark for fertilizing his want to play professional soccer. St. Benedict’s is known for educating MLS Players like Juan Agudelo and Gregg Berhalter, as well as current U20 U.S. Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos.
“Being in that culture ignited my passion for soccer even more,” Opare said.
After a few short years in America, Opare moved to Niagara, Ontario, Canada, before going on to the University of Michigan.
After four successful years at Michigan, the Galaxy drafted Opare in 2013 where he remained until he was traded to D.C. United on July 29, 2014.
Opare is a strong defender as well as an offensive threat on set pieces. He was the only United player to score in three competitions last season:the MLS regular season, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the 2015-2016 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.
United was so pleased with Opare’s 2015 performance when he stepped in for defender Steven Birnbaum that the club offered Opare a multi-year contract extension.
As a backup center back in the MLS, Opare rarely sees playing time in league games, but as a professional athlete, he is always ready.
“I want to make it hard on the coach,” Opare said. “I want the coach to know that if he needs to put me in, I am ready. I don’t want them to second guess. I want the coaches to know that Kofi can get the job done.”
He has played three games in the 2016 MLS season. The first was an isolated appearance in disappointing 3-0 loss to FC Dallas early in the season.
In the last month, Opare has stepped into a more consistent role for United, playing in place of Birnbaum, who is with the U.S. Men’s National Team for the Copa America tournament this month. Opare’s first duty as consistent starting center back was against Sporting Kansas City. United won that game 1-0, and Opare was named to MLS Team of the Week.
“Those few months, especially after the Dallas game, it was nice to have a good game and to be recognized,” Opare said. “But it wasn’t an individual performance. It was a team performance. As a team we were organized and defended well. For me, it was great to be recognized, but it was a collective effort. More importantly, it was most satisfying to win the game.”
— D.C. United (@dcunited) May 30, 2016
After the victory against Sporting Kansas City, United coach Ben Olsen praised Opare for his performance.
“He is a guy that we think is a gamer,” Olsen said. “He is able to do that and step in. Especially at the center back position, it is tough when you don’t get every other game. Sometimes you have to sit for a month. He did that last year and we expect no different going forward.”
Opare will likely play in Birnbaum’s place until he returns from the U.S. Men’s National Team. As far as Opare’s own international aspirations, he applied for Canadian citizenship last year and is still waiting for a judge’s decision on the matter. The defender currently holds both Ghana and U.S. citizenship. As far as who he would like to play for on the national level, Opare says he wants to play for whichever nation wants him.
Opare is constantly looking to improve and says that becoming satisfied with your achievements is dangerous.
“That fact that I am a professional athlete is not good enough,” Opare said. “The danger is once you think that you have arrived and you stop working, that is where other people will catch up and surpass you.”
Whether scoring in memory of a friend or defending for the Black-and-Red, Opare is determined to work hard and earn the success he receives. This is a mentality he has adopted from his hardworking parents who have always strived to give their children a better life.
“It comes from my family,” Opare said. “That is where that drive comes from. I try to use that mentality everyday, it doesn’t matter what I do. I try to do it to the best of my abilities. That’s what my mom does. That’s what my dad does. That’s what my brothers do. There are no shortcuts in life. What you work for is what you end up getting.”
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