From 3,100 Miles Apart to Inseparable Teammates:
How Ugo Achara Jr. and Deng Deng Kur Built Northwestern
Men’s Soccer’s Most Enduring Friendship
After international journeys from Nigeria and the U.K., Achara and Kur
formed a friendship at a prep school in Massachusetts. It continues to blossom in Evanston.
Photo Courtesy of Deng Deng Kur
By John Volk
Ugo Achara Jr. and Deng Deng Kur ate lunch together for the first time in the dining hall at Berkshire, a small boarding school in southwestern Massachusetts.
Flags for each country represented in the student body decorate the dining hall walls, including the green and white stripes of Achara’s native Nigeria and the red cross of Kur’s England.
The tables each seat 10 students in black wooden chairs under a vaulted white ceiling. A main row of tables cuts through the middle, splitting the room in two. The soccer team notoriously stakes out this central row, perhaps a fitting position for Berkshire’s biggest claim to fame — a team ranked No. 1 nationally among prep schools four times since 2012.
Over the murmur of the lunch crowd, spikes in volume trace back to laughter or arguments from the middle. Turning heads from the rest of the student body, the boys vigorously debate who’s the best player on the team, almost like they’re putting on a drive-time sports radio talk show for their classmates.
Achara and Kur don’t join in. Achara, the passionate veteran striker, usually keeps to himself off the field. Kur, Berkshire’s new center back, blends in on his first day.
Early-September light pours through large arched windows on each wall. With school just starting, they eat quietly. It’s an innocuous, perhaps even underwhelming, first meeting.
“First impression was ‘he doesn’t talk,'” Kur said of Achara. “I was like, ‘This guy’s kind of quiet, what’s all this I’m hearing?'”
Little did he realize the inherent bond they shared and the relationship that would soon blossom at Berkshire and then 900 miles west in Evanston, Illinois.
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Soccer ruled the weekend where Achara grew up in Enugu, Nigeria.
As the sun set and the West African heat subsided, all the neighborhood kids would rush to the local field, hoping to get picked to play. Achara was always one of the first off the board.
The field was small with a hard futsal-like surface, and it had a knack for attracting spectators. Bets exchanged hands between onlookers while parents and grandparents crowded into nearby balconies to catch a glimpse of the action. People walking back from the bars made a point to stop and watch the games.
“My neighborhood was very tight-knit,” Achara said. “Everyone knew everybody. It was the kind of neighborhood where kids play outside right after school every day, and whatever you did, someone was gonna tell your mom.”
About 3,100 miles north, Kur was learning soccer in his neighborhood — Strawberry Vale Estate, a housing project on the northside of London. He was born and raised there after his parents and two oldest siblings escaped the Sudanese Civil War in the ‘90s.
As a child, Kur made his first strides on a concrete field at Strawberry Vale. About the size of a basketball court and surrounded by a metal fence on all four sides, the neighborhood kids called it “The Cages.” It was quite the contrast to Achara’s crowd-drawing spectacles, but it was every bit the same proving ground. Everyone aged 7 to 17 came to play five-on-five in The Cages. Winner stays on. Anything goes.
“It really helps you develop your soccer IQ and really helps you become tougher because you’re playing against older guys,” Kur said. “You’re getting pushed into the fence, you’re getting pushed on the ground, you’re getting kicked, and you can either cry and go away like what kids are supposed to do, or you can stay and keep trying to get better. And that’s what I did.”
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Kur and Achara both arrived in the United States fresh out of middle school, in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Kur’s older brother Teng had landed a coaching job in the Chicago Fire organization, and he encouraged Deng to come with him. Deng could go to high school in the U.S. and have a shot at playing collegiate soccer, an opportunity most people in Strawberry Vale don’t have.
Likewise, Achara’s older brother Ifunanyachi, then a Berkshire student and now a forward for Toronto FC, told his coaches there was another star in the family and convinced his mom to let the younger Achara follow in his footsteps.
Each away from their home countries for the first time, both players experienced a level of culture shock once they arrived in the United States.
“The food was definitely the first thing I noticed,” Achara said. “When I landed my brother was like, ‘Let’s go get pizza!’ And I don’t like cheese. I didn’t know that at the time because we didn’t have cheese back home, and I ate into this big cheese pizza and it was just like ‘Yuck!’”
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Achara spent ninth grade at Fessenden, another boarding school in Massachusetts, before transferring to Berkshire for the last three years.
After cycling through three coaches in three years, Achara came to a head with his new head coach Charlie Bour at the beginning of his junior year. An injury to the team’s starting right back left a hole that Bour decided to fill with Achara, a lifelong striker. Even once the injured right back returned later in the season, Achara stayed at the position.
“It was a difficult situation, so I just became difficult to deal with,” he said. “I would be late to practice, and not have the best attitude at practice when I’m there.”
With Achara still on defense, Berkshire secured the first seed in the playoffs and fought its way into the championship game. After two overtimes, however, the Bears couldn’t break through on offense. They fell 1-0.
Meanwhile, after spending two years in the U.S. with his brother, Kur moved in with a host family in Chicago and finished up his last two years of high school at Glenbrook North. By his senior year, he’d already received a handful of Division III offers, but one coach suggested taking a postgraduate year where he could get more tape and experience at a boarding school before college.
Playing for FC United his senior year, Kur’s team traveled to the Disney Showcase at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in Dec. 2017.
With Kur on defense, they handily won the first two games. In the third and final game, Kur, alongside club teammate and current Wildcat Logan Weaver, faced off against another future teammate, midfielder Bardia Kimiavi, and his team Loudoun Soccer which won a national championship in 2016. Under the lights, Kur remembers looking up to see a packed house.
“There were lots of coaches just watching, you could see the press boxes and the fans and people starting to show up,” Kur said. “It was a really big game.”
Kur shined, shutting down Kimiavi. FC United put in a goal. Then another. Loudoun didn’t get one. They couldn’t move the ball past Kur.
After the game, Kur received a call from Tim Lenahan, Northwestern’s head coach. He watched Kur neutralize one of his top recruits and wanted him on the team. The Wildcats didn’t have any more spots to offer, but when Kur explained that he might take a postgraduate year, the offer stood. If Kur was still interested in a year, there would be a spot for him.
In the meantime, Kur decided he would lace up for Berkshire the next fall.
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Achara entered his senior season still holding a grudge about his position change the year prior. But upon meeting Kur in the dining hall that first day, Achara could already see himself moving back to striker with Kur adding depth to the defense.
After playing two more preseason games at right back, Achara had his wish granted. He was a striker again. With that move, a dynamic duo emerged in practice: Kur, the amiable defender, and Achara, the fiery forward.
“Deng is like a player cheerleader. He’s not afraid to be positive, and on the other hand, Achara is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen,” Bour said. “He became a leader that held people accountable, and that’s such a difficult thing to find at the high school level.”
As Achara and Kur’s contrasting leadership styles took hold, they went to battle on the practice field. At the top of their respective positions, iron sharpened iron.
“I just liked the energy he brought to training and the passion he has for the game,” Kur said. “I’ve never really seen that a lot from players, and I loved that initially. And with him being a forward and me a defender, it makes you up your game as well because you’re trying to stop him and be your best against him.”
Berkshire went through a tough string of games early that season, but the team held tight. Achara and Kur grew closer, bonding over their journeys to the US as well as food and music. They liked listening to Afro swing, R&B, hip-hop and even Disney songs.
“While I grew up in Nigeria, and he grew up in the U.K., there’s definitely that sense of sometimes feeling like you don’t belong to either place,” Achara said. “Having that much shared history definitely helped with our relationship.”
As a harsh winter moved into New England, Berkshire finished well enough to again secure the first seed in the postseason. The Bears successfully dispatched their first two opponents, and for the second-straight year, they were headed to the championship game.
Snow piled up around the perimeter of the field. Berkshire took an early 1-0 lead but quickly fell back into a 1-1 tie going into halftime. In the locker room, Kur remembers feeling frustrated with his performance in the first half.
“I just had a nightmare in the back,” Kur said. “I gave the ball away so many times and was kind of panicky on the ball.”
After the break, though, Bour called on Kur to take a routine free kick from midfield. He launched a bomb. The ball careened into the opposite box right in front of the out-of-position keeper who could only watch as it bounced over his head into the goal.
Berkshire added another goal after Kur’s miracle shot. A year after falling a game short, the Bears were champions. Kur’s goal made the difference.
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After the season, Achara visited Kur in Chicago over winter break. Kur had already taken Lenahan up on his offer and was set to be a Wildcat next fall for the 2019 season. Achara still hadn’t decided, and he had many options based on his talent.
“Frankly, soccer-wise, Achara could have played anywhere in the country,” Bour said. “He could be a starter at UNC, UVA, Stanford, you name it, in my opinion.”
Kur took Achara on an unofficial visit to Northwestern over that break. He said he’s not one to try to convince anyone to do anything, but the thought of Achara joining him in Evanston was exciting.
After they took an official visit later that school year, Achara had made his decision: Northwestern was his place, and for the first time in his life he wouldn’t have to make a major transition alone.
“After I called my brother and home, Deng was the next person to know,” Achara said. “We were very happy about that decision of getting to spend four more years together playing on the same team. Also thinking about the transition from high school to college, having somebody you know already as well was really nice.”
Achara and Kur moved into rooms next door to each other in Foster-Walker during the summer before their first year in 2019.
“We were training together and enjoying Evanston, the Lakefill and everything like that,” Kur said. “It was awesome to settle in and have two months before the other freshmen arrived just to get acclimated to Evanston and college classes.”
However, as the season began to ramp up in August, Kur realized that he wouldn’t see game action his first year. After taking an extra year in high school to secure his spot at Northwestern, Kur again had to delay his collegiate career with a redshirt season.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Kur said. “But I mean, that’s what happens when you go up a level in any sport.”
Achara could see his friend was disappointed. They sat down and had a long heart-to-heart conversation about Kur’s situation. They checked in throughout the season to make sure Kur was feeling OK, and with his ever-present smile, Kur stayed positive.
Meanwhile, Achara devised a plan to show off Kur’s talent.
“In practices, he comes for me, I always try to go for him as well,” Achara said. “It may not be the best way to go about it, but I’ll be saying things here and there and trying to challenge him. I feel like the only reason someone wouldn’t play is because the coaches feel like you’re not ready, and in my mind, if you can stop me and go head to head with me, the coaches are gonna see that. So I try as best as I can to go against him. Whenever I think he can do something better, I tell him, and he does the same for me.”
Kur continued to hone his craft and cheered for the team harder than anyone last season. When Achara scored against Indiana on Oct. 1, no one was happier than Kur. The two broke down Achara’s tape together for every game with Kur explaining what Achara could’ve done better from a defender’s perspective.
Achara and Kur decided to move into an apartment together this season to continue growing their friendship and improving each other’s soccer acumen. Both say Kur has significantly improved since before last season, and even though COVID-19 eliminated this fall season, they’re excited to kick things off in the spring.
“As the winter and spring came along before Covid, I felt like I was rediscovering my own form and improving myself as a player,” Kur said. “If all goes well, we should be having a spring season and we’re excited for it. Very excited.”
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