Ifunanyachi Achara. Image: Toronto FC
Trying to get a professional athlete to reveal his personal goals for an upcoming season can be as difficult as getting a Fort Knox guard to give you the combination to the vault.
Nobody, it seems, wants to say something that might come back and haunt them.
But Toronto FC rookie Ifunanyachi Achara certainly isn’t afraid to lay it on the line.
“My first goal this year was to get drafted, and then sign, which was awesome,” the young TFC forward said following a training session at BMO Field. “My goal now is to try to make the team, try to come (off) the bench and see how I can help the team. And keep working hard. And personal goals … winning (MLS) rookie of the year is achievable for me. I think if I get my chance on the field, I can do a lot.”
Hey, when your journey to the professional ranks has been as improbable as Achara’s, you’re not afraid to aim high and go for it.
When Achara was 15 years old, he had made a name for himself playing youth/street soccer in his hometown of Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria, and was invited to try out for the Nigerian U17 team. Despite a good camp, he didn’t make the national team — an exceptionally talented squad that went on to win the 2013 FIFA U17 World Cup in United Arab Emirates.
“That was really disappointing,” said Achara, who thought that perhaps he had missed a huge opportunity to get recognized and further his career. “But I used that to work harder.”
The work paid off. Later, while playing in a tournament back home, Achara was spotted by American coach Jon Moodey and — through the MTN Football Scholar program — recruited to the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. While there, he played with England U21 international Jack Harrison, Charlotte Independence winger Mutaya Mwape and, later on, future TFC teammate Jacob Shaffelburg. Going to Berkshire was a turning point in Achara’s life, though travelling to a new country and barely speaking English was not easy.
“The first year was really tough because it was really cold in Massachusetts and I had to adapt to the weather and the food,” he said. “It was hard for me to communicate. It was difficult writing papers, talking to teachers and doing presentations. I couldn’t really express myself. I knew what I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t say it.
“I was alone, but at the same time I had a lot of people who cared about me, like Jon Moodey and some of the faculty at Berkshire and then later at Georgetown,” he said.
Berkshire opened doors for Achara in soccer and in other ways. He embraced new experiences with both arms, such as playing ice hockey for the first time. In his senior year at the prestigious New England boarding school, the young Nigerian was told, as part of a course, to pick an intramural winter sport to try.
“All my friends were doing basketball, but I’m just terrible at basketball,” Achara said with a laugh. “So I thought I’d try something I’ve never done before. We don’t have ice rinks in Nigeria and I wanted to try a different culture’s sports.”
Achara spent two weeks learning to skate before finally playing a game.
“I learned to skate, but I couldn’t stop. I’d just run into the (boards),” he said, laughing. “I got better, but our team was terrible. We were bad because it was all new people learning how to skate and play hockey. And then we played against the (junior varsity) girls team.
“I scored the game-winner!” he said, laughing.
One sport other than soccer that Achara did excel in at Berkshire was track. In fact, he was a member of the Berkshire team that won the New England Prep School Track Association 4×400-metre relay title. Another member was Shaffelburg (who later won a NEPSTA 4×100 title with Ifunanyachi’s younger brother Ugochukwu, now a forward with Northwestern University). When asked who is faster, he or Shaffelburg, Ifunanyachi smiled and said his Canadian teammate can beat him over 100 metres but probably not over 400. When relayed that information, Shaffelburg smiled, slyly, and said that he can beat Achara over any distance.
From Berkshire, Achara went to Georgetown University and flourished in the Big East Conference, captaining the Hoyas to the NCAA national championship in 2019. His career with Georgetown, however, was marred by injuries, including lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in his first and second years, and a sprained left meniscus requiring surgery prior to his senior year. It was clear that Achara had all the qualities to be a tremendous player — strength, pace, skill and athleticism — but he seemed snake-bit and there was some question, at least in his mind, whether his name would be announced at the MLS SuperDraft. The 22-year-old said his plan, if he wasn’t drafted, was to work for a while in the U.S., save some money and then return home and perhaps work in his dad’s small retail business in Enugu. Happily, the Reds selected Achara 25th overall in the 2020 draft, though he likely would have gone much higher if not for his injury history at Georgetown.
“That was awesome,” said Achara. “But it was a difficult pick for (TFC). If it was a U.S. team that had drafted me, I would have been able to go there right away. But I had to get a VISA (to come) to Canada. And I couldn’t do my VISA (application) because I didn’t know if I would make the team yet. I was in a difficult spot.”
To add to the uncertainty, just before the Reds opened preseason training in Orlando in January, Achara came down with the flu and was told to stay home. Again, he felt like a tremendous opportunity to move his career forward was falling by the wayside.
“My feeling was, they’re aren’t going to see me enough,” he said.
But Achara was able to join TFC in Los Angeles for the second part of pre-season where he put the coaching staff on notice that he waqs ready to play in MLS right now, scoring three goals in preseason games. Before the regular season began, TFC signed Achara to a first-team contract.
Shaffelburg was at the Canadian national team training camp when he heard that the Reds had drafted Achara, his former teammate at Berkshire.
“I was shocked,” said the Port Williams, N.S. native. “I had no idea (the team was considering him). I was rooming with (TFC forward) Jayden (Nelson) at Canada camp and he said: ‘Look who we drafted.’ So I looked and it was Achara. I couldn’t believe it. But it’s crazy to be here with him.”
Shaffelburg, now in his second year with the Reds, said when he first arrived at Berkshire as a freshman, Achara was a senior and went out of his way to help him get acclimatized to the school and the campus. Now Shaffelburg wants to do the same for Achara in Toronto.
“He’s a super nice guy,” said the second-year winger.
Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney is careful not to place young players too high on a pedestal. And rightly so. Players don’t need that kind of pressure. But he certainly wasn’t stingy on Thursday in his praise of Achara after seeing what the young man can do on the field.
“I think he’s a player who’s going to help us this year,” said Vanney. “Over the years, we haven’t had a lot of draft picks who, in their first year, were going to bring something new to the team. But I think he will be able to.
“Very interesting player,” Vanney continued. “Very intelligent kid. Whenever we’ve given him tactical information or even adjustments in-game, he’s very quick to apply them. He’s quick, he can play on the move, he can play short, he’s technically gifted with his right foot and his left foot. He’s a player that we’re excited about and we believe can help us and add some difference. He can come inside, he can stay outside, he can play as a nine (centre forward), he can play as a winger. He’s a really nice player in all aspects. And defensively, he understands his role and he’s in the right positions. He brings a unique skill set to our group that we need.”
Vanney said there’s a chance Achara may get some time on the field during the club’s home opener on Saturday against New York City FC.
“For me, it’s looking for the right moment and opportunity to get him out in front of the big crowd, get his feet wet and take the emotion of it in,” said the coach.
Vanney said he received several texts from friends in soccer after the Reds selected the young Nigerian.
“(They) said: ‘This kid is really talented. If you can get the best out of him, he’s going to help you a great deal,’” said Vanney. “And he’s probably further along than we thought in terms of his tactical intelligence, his understanding and feel for the game and his ability to apply things quickly.”
The best news of all for Achara is, physically, he feels great – no lingering aches or pains from his time at Georgetown.
“The injury stuff is all in the past now,” he said. “I’m strong, I feel great, nothing hurts. It’s just amazing.”
The Reds’ return to Toronto from San Jose last Sunday marked Achara’s first-ever visit to Canada and training at frigid BMO Field on Thursday certainly didn’t throw him for a loop. He can’t stop smiling.
“I love it here,” he said. “Coming here and playing and being around the guys, they just make you so much better. They’re all good players.”
Sitting inside the dining room at BMO Field, Achara admitted that he has one other goal this season — to be able to bring his parents to Toronto from Nigeria. The personable footballer hasn’t been back home since Christmas 2016 and admits that he gets homesick and really misses his family.
“I don’t think my mom has actually ever seen me play soccer at all,” he said. “That would be nice if they come.”
INJURED RETURNS ARE ON HOLD
Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said on Thursday that winger Jacob Shaffelburg (hamstring) and midfielder Nick DeLeon (back) will likely not be in the lineup for the club’s home opener at BMO Field on Saturday against New York City FC.
“I still have to find out the severity of it and the timeline,” said Vanney, of Shaffelburg.
“Nick is getting closer. He had some work done on his back to try to relieve some nerve pain and he’s moving in the right direction. Everybody else who was in San Jose (for the season opener last Saturday) will be ready to go.”
There was actually a Pablo Piatti sighting at BMO Field on Thursday, though the club’s new Designated Player did not train with his teammates on the field.
Piatti suffered a strained hamstring during pre-season camp in Los Angeles. There is no timeline for his return.
“Once I start to see him around the field and running and working, then I’ll have a better indication,” Vanney said.
“I don’t have an exact time at the moment. One, we’ve got to get the hamstring healthy and, two, continue to get his fitness level up and get him ready to play.”
SOURCE: THE SUDBURY STAR