TORONTO — Nigerian rookie Ifunanyachi Achara had a dream MLS debut Saturday, scoring the late winner to give Toronto FC a 1-0 victory over Eastern Conference rival New York City FC.
The 22-year-old first-round draft pick only found out he was starting some 90 to 100 minutes before kickoff when Tsubasa Endoh failed a late fitness test after taking a knock on the knee in training Friday.
"Then it was 'Achara, you're in,'" said coach Greg Vanney, who celebrated his 100th win at the Toronto helm in all competitions.
"Tonight, he was fantastic," he added. "He's been fantastic since the day he arrived in pre-season in L.A. ... From the day he arrived, he's shown that he fits in, that he's talented, that's he's a smart player, he can adapt within the game, can read plays, can play on the move as we saw tonight. He's got soft feet even when he's playing on the run.
"And he's got a nose for goal. He scored twice tonight, really."
The first goal in the 11th minute did not survive video review. Jonathan Osorio danced past several NYCFC defenders and found Achara, who poked it in with his left foot.
Achara raced towards the corner, sliding on his knees in celebration. But the goal was ruled offside — correctly — with referee Ted Unkel going to the pitchside monitor to make his final decision.
"Two goals would have much better but I'll take one," said a smiling Achara.
Toronto kept the pressure on NYCFC, outshooting the visitors 17-11 (9-3 in shots on target). But New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson stood strong and the game seemed headed to a scoreless draw — until the 81st minute.
A poor giveaway by defender Ronald Matarrita off a NYCFC throw-in went straight to Achara who drove forward before passing to Alejandro Pozuelo. The Spaniard swept the ball wide, just off the boot of a stretching Jozy Altidore to Richie Laryea.
The substitute sent in a cross that deflected off Matarrita high towards the far corner of the goal where Achara rose to head it in. No one was immediately sure whether the ball was already in when he got to it, but it was ruled his goal.
There was no shortage of talking points at Toronto's home opener before an announced crowd of 26,171 at BMO Field. Toronto (1-0-1) also had a potential penalty waved off by video review in the first half.
The win stretched TFC's undefeated run in regular-season games to a franchise-record 12 games (6-0-6) dating back to early August.
Achara goes by his last name at Toronto FC. For those wondering, his first name is pronounced ee-fuh-nawn-YATCH'-ee. He chose No. 99 because the other numbers he has worn were taken in Toronto and Brazilian star Ronaldo, a favourite of his growing up, wore No. 99 at AC Milan.
He has since learned 99 is associated with someone else in Canada.
"I'm not a big hockey fan but I know — now," he said.
Toronto took Achara 25th overall in the January MLS SuperDraft with GM Ali Curtis believing he could have been a top-five pick had it not been for injuries that limited his play at Georgetown.
He turned heads in pre-season, scoring three goals despite missing the first portion in Orlando due to illness. His teammates say he arrived with the right attitude, respectful to the veterans and eager to learn.
Back in Nigeria, 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.
Achara, whose father runs a small retail store back home, passed the necessary academic tests and headed to the U.S. at age 16.
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 then went to Georgetown, helping the Hoyas to the national title last year as a senior despite injuries.
Because of the new coronavirus, the players dispensed with the normal pre-match handshakes in favour of fist bumps Saturday. And prior to kickoff, the video screen at BMO field offered tips on hand-washing to those in attendance.
Given the ongoing health scare, BMO may want to rethink its football-themed slogan "Sore lungs are the price of passion" that flashed on the electronic hoarding around BMO Field.
It was a crisp three degrees Celsius — said to feel like minus-two — at the 5 p.m. ET kickoff.
It was Toronto's first home game since a 5-1 extra-time playoff win over D.C. United on Oct. 29. And the first meeting between TFC and NYCFC (0-2-0) since Toronto ended the New Yorkers' season with a 2-1 win in the Eastern Conference semifinal on a late Pozuelo penalty.
Achara and Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo moved into Toronto's starting lineup with Endoh and Jacob Shaffelburg dropping out. Shaffelburg left last week's season-opening 2-2 tie in San Jose with a hamstring issue while Endoh took a knock on his knee in training Friday.
Achara took up a position on the left wing while Gallardo was stationed on the right.
At times it was a 4-2-3-1 with Osorio and Marky Delgado playing behind Achara, Pozuelo and Gallardo with Altidore up front.
One again there was no place for Liam Faser, seen as many as the natural replacement for the injured Michael Bradley in the holding midfield role. But Vanney has long wanted width from his team and he gets it from this formation.
Video review came into play again in the 28th minute after Toronto fullback Justin Morrow went down in the box after making contact with James Sands, who left his knee out on the play. There was no call on the field and referee Ted Unkel let play go on after watching the replay on the pitchside monitor.
"I'm disappointed in the first half," said NYCFC coach Ronny Deila. "Twenty minutes of the second half we were in better shape. We were a better team than we were in the first."
Toronto came into the match with an unimpressive 2-4-5 all-time record against NYCFC. The two victories were both 4-0 decisions at BMO Field.
But TFC has held the upper hand in the post-season, winning all three playoff meetings.
Toronto was missing the injured Pablo Piatti, Nick DeLeon and Shaffelburg. New York was without suspended defender Maxime Chanot, who was sent off in the third minute of NYCFC's 1-0 loss in Columbus last week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press