RJ DEMELLO - Thursday, July 31, 2014
Almost a year has passed since Thor Akureyri survived the drop in Iceland's top flight, yet halfway through the next campaign and the club finds itself in similar situation, once again relying on an American forward to lead the team to safety.
The last time Yanks Abroad caught up with Chukwudi Chijindu, the star striker had just single-handedly kept Thor is the Icelandic premier league, with 10 goals in just 18 matches. After a frustrating off-season, and subsequent start to the league, Chijindu is ready to prove once again that he is one of the top forwards in all of Iceland.
After his stellar 2013 performance, Chijindu drew the attention of many potential suitors for his services.
"I had a lot of good talks with clubs from other countries. Also bigger clubs in Iceland as well. I guess nothing else is truer than timing is everything," Chijindu told Yanks-Abroad.
Despite the interest from multiple parties, clubs in MLS, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway according to the American, it always seemed to fall apart at the last moment.
As the forward puts it, "There was a lot of dialogue between clubs, some talks went very far and almost coming to a deal, but in the end I ended up coming back here-I'm happy with my decision."
With the possibility of a bigger club and a greater challenge out the window, Chijindu turned his sights towards the 2014 Urvalsdeild season with Thor. As the club is a small one from a town with a population of just about 18,000 and a stadium that seats less that 2,000, many criticized him for ending up back at the Akureyri outfit.
"A lot of things were said about why I came back to the small club. So I wanted to let my play on the field do the talking," he said
That's just about when the Californian's earlier statements about timing rang true once again.
Chijindu hit the practice field just a day before the season opening match against Keflavik. What was supposed to be a harmless and easy session before the start of the new year turned out to be the unluckiest of times for the UCONN alum.
As he describes, "I was training, it was a Saturday we were just doing like a light training and just kind of went to pass the ball and next thing you know after I pass it I heard a pop in my calf. It's kind of one of those devastating moments where you know it's obviously nothing good whenever you feel a pop in a muscle."
In a normal league with a normal schedule this calf injury would be a relatively minor issue, leaving him with most of the season to bounce back and make an impact. For players and teams in Iceland it is a completely different story, with just 22 games condensed into a five month long period. This compact timeframe only increased the already heavy pressure on Chijindu.
"It wasn't like, hey get better and do what you have to do to get back on the field," the striker said about those at the club and even fans in the streets of town. "It was like, when are you going to play?"
It certainly didn't help the situation that Thor started the season losing its first four matches. The results sent the club, for the second season in a row, into the relegation zone. Now halfway through the year, Chijindu is back with the team that so desperately needs him.
Often when a player returns from injury a club will integrate him back in slowly, with a few substitute appearances before throwing them out at the start. Unfortunately for Thor and its American forward, the overall situation prevented that from happening. Chijindu ended up starting his first game back and playing 70 minutes before being substituted.
"Playing 70 in the first game was decent," he said. Pausing for a moment before admitting he, "was probably ready for 45."
Returning to fitness and regaining his sharpness around the box, the former Huskie must now shift his focus to helping the club survive yet another relegation battle. As the table currently stands, with just nine games remaining Thor sits two points from safety.
With the optimism necessary in a grim situation, Chijindu thinks that the club will be able to escape for the second year running.
"I definitely feel like we're in position to make a good run," he said. Looking at the point totals in the standings he notes it's, "a bunch of sardines from mid-table down."
If Thor is to escape relegation the team will once again need the heroics of its American forward. Since the league expanded from 10 teams to 12 in 2008, no club has ever been relegated with 22 points or more. So to seemingly guarantee survival, the Akureyri outfit needs 13 points from nine matches.
While it is certainly a tall task it is not out of the realm of possibility. In the last nine games of the 2013 season that saw Thor claw its way out of the relegation zone, the team collected 11 points. During that stretch, Chijindu scored four goals, including the game winner in the match that clinched safety.
Much like last year he explains, "Hopefully, I can finish the season strong." Do that, and just maybe for the second year running this yank abroad can lead his team to another year in the Icelandic top flight.