It’s not often that No. 99 can slip out of the building completely unnoticed. But there he was Saturday night, walking out the door with a couple of friends – postgame meal in hand – past a collection of oblivious autograph hunters and away into the night.
Of course, Wayne Gretzky was nowhere near BMO Field on the weekend, but Ifunanyachi Achara, the latest Toronto athlete to wear the famous digits – following in the shirttails of Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu – did his part to live up to the transcendent spirit of the Great One.
Not only did Achara score the only goal of the game in his Major League Soccer debut to hand Toronto FC victory in its home opener, but he could quite easily have had a hat trick. The rookie had an early goal ruled out for offside and only a finger-tip save from New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson prevented another at the end of the first half.
“Tonight he was fantastic,” said TFC head coach Greg Vanney, who, having had to wait through the 2019 MLS Cup final defeat and last week’s season-opening draw in San Jose, finally got the 99 off his own back with his 100th win in charge of Toronto.
Going to the United States from his native Nigeria as a 16-year-old to play soccer at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., Achara tried his hand at hockey there, but his choice of uniform number is actually in homage to Ronaldo – the original, Brazilian one – from his time at AC Milan.
His other choice would have been 14, as he also grew up idolizing Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry – now head coach at the rival Montreal Impact – but that had already been claimed by fellow rookie Noble Okello. And 20, the number he wore at Georgetown University before being taken 25th in this year’s MLS draft, is currently held by Ayo Akinola.
And so he became the first TFC player to wear No. 99.
It didn’t matter to him, however. The only number Achara was concerned about after the game was one, although he would have preferred it to be two.
“Two goals would have been much better, but I’ll take one,” he said, having been told he was playing only 90 minutes before game time, once Tsubasa Endoh failed to recover sufficiently from a knock he picked up in training.
Although the 22-year-old began his soccer career as a fullback in his native Nigeria, and almost made the national team for the under-17 World Cup, after moving to Berkshire, he showed a deft goal-scoring touch and quickly moved up the field as an attacker.
His versatility may prove to be one of his greatest assets this season. In a salary-cap league such as the MLS, being able to adeptly play multiple positions will not only get the rookie more playing time, but can prove invaluable as the team doesn’t necessarily have a multitude of replacement options at every position.
Vanney says Achara has a “nose for goal” and can play as a lead striker, but ultimately feels his best position is out wide as a winger.
“I like him on the wings because I think he can beat you on the outside, he can beat you on the inside, he’s got great timing on his runs,” the head coach said, referencing Achara’s ability to arrive late on the back post, just as he did on Saturday to head home the 81st-minute game-winner.
“He really is an intelligent player for a young man who is just coming out of college,” Vanney said. “I’ve given him a bunch of things to think about; defending in different ways, showing up in different pockets, keeping width … .
"It’s nice to work with him because not all players who have just come into the professional environment pick up on things so easily and he is one who has and he’s just a good attacking player who can play in any of the positions.”
Being able to spread goals through the lineup is one of the things that Vanney sees as a vital precursor to team success, so having rookies such as Achara show they can handle that burden from the get-go is a good sign.
Jozy Altidore, with 71 career MLS goals, certainly knows a thing or two about finding the back of the net – and getting in position to score – and was overjoyed at seeing one of his younger teammates show an ability to help out in that department.
“He’s a poacher,” said the acting captain in Michael Bradley’s injured-enforced absence. “… And he was there. It’s not luck to end up back there and it won us the game.”
Game-winning performances such as Saturday’s were routine throughout much of Gretzky’s career, too, and if Achara can continue to perform as he did on Saturday, it won’t be the last time he’s reminded of the connection. He may even begin to remember the name of the other chap.
“We talked about it a little bit,” he said of the 99 connection. “I’m not a big hockey fan but I know now. [Somebody] told me, but I’ve forgotten his name. Great hockey player.”