When Ifunanyachi Achara heard his name picked by Toronto FC at the 2020 MLS Draft back in January, the winger could not contain his excitement. His friends had just left to make a quick stop at the corner store, leaving him all alone to deal with the news.
The 22-year-old has hit the ground running in the early goings of his TFC career and following a strong preseason, he was promptly offered his first professional contract. A natural winger by trade, Achara has adapted wonderfully to Greg Vanney’s system and has since emerged as a threat out wide.
“When TFC had the 19th pick, I thought it was going to be me. I knew they were interested and talking to my coach,”Achara told SBI. “When they didn’t pick me, I thought that was it, maybe they weren’t interested. I was still in shock when I heard my name. It only hit me after I got a call from Ali (Curtis) and he told me congrats.”
The 22-year-old has since taken TFC by storm, scoring a goal in every game he’s played in dating back to preseason. Before play was suspended, Achara notched the winning goal against New York City FC in his MLS debut, establishing himself as an early favorite at BMO Field. His path to MLS, however, has not always been clearcut.
“When I graduated from Georgetown, my student visa expired and I could have only stayed if I got a job,”Achara said. “Then, TFC, a Canadian team, drafted me, which made it even more difficult. If I didn’t impress the coach, I couldn’t go back to the United States.”
After being drafted, the winger joined TFC at their Florida camp but missed most of it with a bad case of the flu. With his future looking uncertain, Achara knew he had to hit the ground running in California.
“When I met Jozy (Altidore), Omar (Gonzalez), and all the guys I watched on TV in California, it was awesome. It’s easy to play with good players, it just clicks,” Achara said. “They’ve made me so much better already, I realized I can shoot way more. Going into preseason, I quickly saw how I can fit in with what coach Vanney wanted.”
Achara wasted no time making a name for himself, scoring three goals in three preseason appearances, including strikes against LAFC and LA Galaxy. When TFC announced Achara was offered a contract shortly after preseason, the news came as no surprise.
“When a coach tells you exactly what he expects from you, it helps,” Achara said. “He keeps telling me not to be afraid to use my pace and run at defenders. I want to work hard in practice, this gives me confidence.”
This attitude has worked well for Achara in the past and helped him lead Georgetown University to their first-ever NCAA Tournament win last year over the Virginia Cavaliers. Captaining the side, the Nigerian learned a lot.
“Coming in as a freshman, my dream was to go pro. Coach (Lee) Reed was like a father to me giving me advice,” Achara said. “Going up against the competition in the NCAA prepares you, especially when you get to the playoffs against Stanford and Virginia. When you play at that level, it gives you confidence.”
Achara initially made the switch to North America thanks to the MTN Football Scholar Program, but a move stateside wasn’t always in his plans. After being dropped from Nigeria’s U-17 team, Achara channeled his disappointment into his next move.
“Kelechi (Iheanacho) told me I was being dropped, actually. I was 16 at the time. I was really sad because it was a huge opportunity. It got more depressing after they won the World Cup,” Achara told SBI. “All my friends went to Porto and other cool teams and I had to start over again. Moving to Berkshire was the next move and from there I went to Georgetown.”
Achara may have just turned 22, but the Nigerian has proven he can adapt to his new surroundings quickly and handle adversity with aplomb. When he first arrived at Berkshire, the TFC man confesses it was among the most difficult moments of his life.
“The U.S. is very different, I would try and communicate but the words would not come out,” Achara said. “It was really frustrating at first talking to my coaches and teammates, but once I learned the language I felt more comfortable.”
It may be early days, but the Enugu native is slowly winning over the TFC faithful. When play resumes, Achara’s next challenge is establishing himself as a regular for Vanney’s men. Breaking through TFC’s starting eleven won’t be easy, but if the 22-year-old’s short career is anything to go by, Achara will be raring to go.
“I wake up and work hard every day to try and make the first team,” Achara said. “I want to take advantage of every opportunity and learn from everyone around me. My main objective is to stay ready. Ready to work, that’s it.”