Achara making a name with Toronto FC, just not his first name

Nigerian forward Ifunanyachi Achara, co-captain of the Georgetown team that won the NCAA College Cup last month is shown in this recent handout image. (Georgetown Athletics Communications-Art Pittman/HO/CP)

With three goals in three straight games, rookie forward Ifunanyachi Achara is making a name for himself at Toronto FC training camp.

It’s just not his first name, which is a handful. Friends don’t even bother with it.

“They all call me Achara, just because it’s easier,” said the first-round draft pick from Nigeria by way of Georgetown University.

His first name is pronounced ee-fuh-nawn-YATCH’-ee, for those wondering. Back home, that’s no problem for his family.

“They’re used to it,” said the 22-year-old.

Whether Toronto FC fans get used to Achara remains to be seen, given he has yet to sign a first-team contract. But after missing time at the TFC’s first warm-weather camp in Orlando due to illness, he is now attracting attention in California with goals against UC Irvine, Los Angeles FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney likes what he sees.

“He’s a smart player, moves nicely with the ball, he’s not afraid of any situations,” Vanney was quoted on the club website.

“He’s been a nice addition to the group and we’ll see as we continue to progress through these games what kind of role he can play for us going forward,” he added.

Toronto took Achara 25th overall in last month’s MLS SuperDraft. General manager Ali Curtis believes Achara could have been a top-five pick had it not been for injuries that limited his play at Georgetown.

Achara, who watched the draft with friends, was just happy to be selected.

“It was amazing, an amazing feeling,” he said. “I can’t even describe it. So much excitement. I’ve been working so hard for this. And to go to a really good MLS team like Toronto.”

Back home, a young Achara drew the attention of the Nigerian under-17 team as a right back.

He failed to make the cut for the U-17 World Cup but thanks to the MTN Football Scholar program — which connect coaches to young African talent — he drew the attention of Jon Moodey, then soccer coach at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. Toronto FC winger Jacob Shaffelburg and Jack Harrison, a former New York City FC midfielder now on loan at Leeds United from Manchester City, also went there.

Achara, whose father runs a small retail store back home, passed the necessary academic tests and headed to the U.S. at age 16.

“Everything was different,” he recalled. “I just had to get used to everything — the food, the weather … but at the same time, it was an amazing appearance being around different people.”

Growing up in Enugu, he spoke Igbo — one of the many languages spoken in Nigeria. He took some English in school, improving his language skills at Berkshire where he scored 39 goals and added 22 assists.

Achara initially considered a scholarship from St. John’s University but offers came from other schools. He did his homework, eventually narrowing his search to Georgetown, Stanford and UCLA.

The Georgetown coaches won him over, offering to give him a four-year scholarship even though he might only have eligibility for three years coming from Nigeria. In the end, the school helped him get four-year eligibility.

Injuries cut that short, however.

As a freshman in 2016, he sprained the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee and played just eight games with one goal. The next season, he sprained the ligament again with seven goals and one assist in 11 games.

He was injury-free as a junior and ranked third on the team in scoring with seven goals (including four game-winners) and one assist in 21 games. He was hurt again playing for his Black Rock FC club team prior to his senior season, with a sprained left meniscus requiring surgery.

The Hoyas co-captain missed the start of the 2019 season but came back strong with six goals and five assists in 15 games, only to sprain his ankle in the NCAA playoffs. He saw limited action after that but came on as a substitute in the Hoyas’ epic 7-6 penalty shootout win over Virginia in the College Cup final in December.

Today the five-foot-10 163-pounder says both knees and his ankle “feel good.”

“Hopefully no more injuries,” he added.

When healthy, Achara proved to be a pacey attacker with a knack of being in the right place at the right time. Right-footed but comfortable with his left as well, he can play on either flank and enjoys running at defenders.

Playing with star striker Jozy Altidore during pre-season has Achara reaching for superlatives, calling the experience amazing, incredible and unbelievable.

“And he’s a really nice guy too,” the rookie said.

“He’s super-encouraging too at practice, gives me compliments on good plays. He’s an awesome standup guy.”

Toronto opens the MLS regular season Feb. 29 at San Jose.

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