TORONTO – There’s no better way to introduce oneself to the home fans.
Toronto FC were victorious in their home opener on Saturday evening, defeating visiting NYCFC 1-0 at BMO Field with the 81st minute goal from 2020 MLS SuperDraft pick Ifunanyachi Achara the decider.
The three points, building on last weekend’s season opening draw in San Jose, extends TFC’s regular season unbeaten streak to 12 matches and marked the 100th win under Greg Vanney in all competitions, but post-match it was Achara’s debut outing that claimed the headlines.
Though he may own Richie Laryea a dinner.
“I was joking, saying that it was my goal, but I'm happy for him,” laughed Laryea post-match, as it was his deflected cross the Achara helped over the line from the doorstep. “First game, he played really well and he deserves a goal. He got one in the first half that got called back. He worked really hard, so I'm happy that he got the goal.”
It was quite the debut.
Achara pounced on a low Jonathan Osorio cross in the 11th minute, tucking it past Sean Johnson, only for a VAR decision to rule him offside. The forward then whipped a fierce strike towards the top corner in first half stoppage-time that required an alert intervention from the NYCFC keeper.
That would have been enough to be noticed, but to cap it off by rising up at the back-post to guide Laryea’s delivery over the line for the game-winner in front of the supporters sections at the South End of BMO Field in the final ten minutes of the home opener is another story.
“He was fantastic,” said Vanney. “He's been fantastic since the day he arrived in preseason. He missed the first portion of training camp in Orlando because he was sick. From the day he arrived, he's shown that he fits in, that he's talented, that he's a smart player, that he can adapt within the game, can read plays, can play on the move.”
“As we saw tonight, he’s got soft feet, even on the run, and he's got a nose for goal,” continued Vanney. “He scored twice tonight, really, and he's scored in just about every preseason game. He's a wide player that can do all the things that we need him to do and then he's got a nose for putting himself in goal-scoring positions. And he had another one picked out of the top corner.”
“Quite a night,” concluded the coach. “It shows you the confidence he has, but also the composure and, even though he's a young guy, he's got a lot of experience under his belt. He came to the U.S. when he was 15 years old, from Nigeria. You can tell he's a man, he understands what life is about and he shows that when he's on the field.”
Never mind that he only found out he would be starting 90-100 minutes before kickoff.
“I was excited,” smiled Achara, seated in the press conference hot seat usually reserved for managers. “I found out I was in the lineup yesterday, on the 18-man list. I was so happy, I might get a chance to play a few minutes.”
“I came in, the coaches [said], ‘Yeah, you're going to start, get ready,’” he recounted. “And I was like, ‘Okay, this is a happening.’”
No time, no need, for any nerves.
“No, [not nervous]. I was happy, excited to just get out there. Soccer is awesome, I just love playing it, so it gives me confidence,” said Achara. “I'm going to go out there and do my thing, try to score goals, be in the right position. Two goals would have been much better, but I'll take one.”
Neither VAR, nor a fine save from the opposing keeper would keep him down.
“I looked up at the time, we have a lot of time to keep going and we're going to get a lot of opportunities to score more. It happens, so we just try to score more goals,” rationalized the 22-year-old at the disappointment of a digital offside flag denying a first goal so early in his professional career.
And that curler?
“I thought was going in, but it was a great save from the goalie,” praised Achara. “He was positioned well and made the save, but I would have loved if that went in.”
99 is a bold choice for a jersey number in this country.
“I’m not a big hockey fan, but I know now,” smiled Achara, who explained that he chose it in honor of Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldo when at AC Milan. Thierry Henry’s #14, another of his hero’s, was not available.
“14 is taken, 20 is taken, which was the number I wore in college,” Achara explained. “So I went for 99.”
BMO Nights are always special, home openers more so, but for Achara this was his first taste.
“Amazing. I've never played in a crowd that big before. The noise, you can’t hear anything,” said the rookie. “It was awesome, the atmosphere, the crowd, the fans were really energetic and it just gave you so much confidence.”
The way Achara has approach this opportunity having been selected in the second round of the SuperDraft, 25th overall, has earned his teammates respect.
“He's old school, I like it,” said Quentin Westberg. “He works very hard, he's very respectful, he listens a lot: exactly what a rookie and what a young guy should be doing. He's doing exactly what young, promising players should do.”
Said Jozy Altidore: “He's come in, from day one, smart kid, he's kept his head down, he’s worked extremely hard and everybody's taken to him. You could see everybody was so happy for him.”
“The first one was disallowed – I don't know how close it was, but he kept his head in the game and he's a poacher a bit, he's got that nose for goal. He was there,” Altidore, wearing the captain’s armband, detailed. “It’s not luck to end up back there. And he won us the game. A great team performance and everybody's thrilled.”
Altidore pre-match message to Achara spoke volumes.
“Just stay loose and have fun, keep that smile on your face,” relayed Altidore. “He's got a great smile. You can feel the good energy in players, you can feel that they just have something different to add. From the first day he walked through the door, he was positive, full of energy, and it's no surprise that he put in such a good performance tonight.”