TORONTO — You could forgive Toronto FC rookie Ifunanyachi Achara if he thought “Why me?”
When the 16-year-old Achara came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2014 to attend Berkshire High School in Massachusetts, he had to undergo a one-month quarantine because of concerns over Ebola. He had flown out of Lagos where cases had been reported.
Fast forward six years and Achara found himself in COVID-19 lockdown just days after celebrating scoring the winning goal in his pro debut March 7.
The young forward is not thinking of himself these days, however. While he misses soccer, he knows there’s more at stake.
“You just have to understand this is bigger than all of us,” he said.
He’s just grateful he got the opportunity to earn an MLS contract and make Toronto’s first team.
Achara’s thoughts are for his family and others back home in Enugu, where his father runs a small retail store.
One brother and sister are back in Nigeria. A younger brother, Ugo Achara Jr., is a sophomore forward at Northwestern University and is weathering the pandemic with a friend in Chicago.
Nigeria, a country of some 214 million located off the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, had just over 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 211 deaths as of Friday, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. Enugu state had 16 confirmed cases and no deaths.
Achara wonders about the numbers, questioning how much testing is being done in his home country.
“There’s concern,” said Achara, noting Nigeria lifted its lockdown after just two weeks. “I’m worried about the virus and stuff because I feel like maybe it’s spreading and they’re not paying attention as much as they should.”
He’s worried about Nigeria’s health-care system — and his family.
“I think my family, they’re taking it seriously. I hope they are. I mean they told me they are, so I believe them.”
His father is seen as an essential worker so his store remains open.
“I told him ‘Hey, you have to really be careful about going out,’” said Achara, who has not been home since 2016.
The concerns go both ways. His mother offered some good advice in telling Achara to make the most of the break, given he has been consumed by school and soccer ever since coming to North America.
Brian Wiese, his coach at Georgetown University, told him virtually the same thing.
“He said ‘Be healthy.’ Because I wasn’t healthy the whole time at Georgetown,” said Achara.
Taken in the first round (25th overall) of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Achara earned a contract after scoring three goals in pre-season despite missing the first part of training camp due to illness.
Toronto believes Achara would have gone much higher in the draft had he not enduring a string of injuries with the Hoyas.
After sitting out Toronto’s season-opening 2-2 tie in San Jose, he was a late addition to the starting lineup a week later against New York City FC when Tsubasa Endoh failed a late fitness test.
Achara wasted little time making an impression on the home crowd at BMO Field. While an 11th-minute goal was ruled offside, Achara scored the winner in the 81st minute.
“Tonight, he was fantastic,” coach Greg Vanney said after the match. “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.”
While Achara praises the team for how its has treated its players during the pandemic, the young forward finds himself in a new city with not many acquaintances other than his teammates. He knew winger Jacob Shaffelburg from their time together at Berkshire High School.
Living in a high-rise near the team’s north Toronto training facility, Achara has not had much of a chance to check out his new city. He doesn’t have a car so the club picks him to take him to individual workouts rather than leave it to a cab.
It is one of the highlights of his week.
“Because you gets to see the coaches and the staff, even if it’s like six feet or two metres away,” he said.
“It’s fun, (it) just feels normal again,” he added. “I know it’s not but it’s something to do.”
Achara has been trying to make the best of the situation. He was featured in a Toronto FC workout video, hefting cans of tomatoes as makeshift weights.
“Just trying to stay fit,” he said with a laugh.
Away from practice, he has been rewatching TFC’s first two games of the season and delving into YouTube, watching Champions League finals and other games from the past.
The return of the Bundesliga has also provided a lift.
His elegantly braided hair has proved to be a challenge, however. Normally he leaves the “retwists” to a professional every three to four weeks but has had to do it himself of late.
“My hair. I need a new haircut, for sure,” he said with a belly-laugh. “It’s not looking good.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press