Photo courtesy of Don Liebig/UCLA
By ADAM SERRANO
LOS ANGELES –- Chandler Hoffman is an opportunist.
His ability to get into the right place at the right time has helped him develop into one of the most feared attackers in college soccer, scoring 18 goals this season at UCLA.
It was his ingenuity and ability to create on his own that got him to UCLA in the first place, though. Midway through his junior year at Oaks Mountain High in Birmingham, Ala., Hoffman was a lightly considered prospect, who was by-and-large ignored by the major programs. To draw the attention of the nation's biggest programs, Hoffman devised a plan as clever as any of his runs towards goal.
He took a chance by putting together a three-minute, 31-second clip of his high school highlights on YouTube and sent the video to coaches at Wake Forest, Maryland and UCLA.
"I realized that I had a really unique ability to score goals, so I thought, 'What do I have to lose?'" Hoffman said. "Within five minutes, I got responses from all of them, asking when they could see me play."
Three years and 35 Hoffman goals later, Bruins coach Jorge Salcedo still remembers his initial impression of the player slicing through high school defenses.
"Is this a real video? Whether or not he superimposed himself in some plays or he was in fact the person that scored all those fantastic goals," Salcedo said. "It was a very impressive highlight reel of his goals, but in some ways it was surreal, because you weren't quite sure that all the goals were really scored.
"In the video, you see a natural goalscorer and someone that can score goals in different ways. It definitely caught our attention."
Salcedo and scores of other college coaches got their first chance to see Hoffman live when he made his first trip to California for a youth academy showcase. It was on the well-manicured fields of the Home Depot Center that the forward immediately impressed, scoring five goals in two matches.
Hoffman was instantly smitten with the Southern California climate, but his parents were less than thrilled with their son moving nearly 2,000 miles to Los Angeles.
"They wanted me to stay on the East Coast, where they could at least drive and see the games," Hoffman said. "I had always seen myself coming to UCLA to be part of the history of professional players that they've had over the years. Once we saw the campus and the facilities, my parents felt what I felt and thought that this was a place that I could excel."
Three years later, the kid from Birmingham considers himself "transformed," with his southern drawl replaced by a strictly Californian vernacular and the "roll tide" and "y'alls" gone from his vocabulary, replaced by "dude" or "sweet".
His language wasn't the only change, as the Alabama "swoop" hairstyle that made him so noticeable in the video was replaced by what he describes as a "Cali cut." Although Hoffman has taken to his life in Southern California, it hasn't always been fun in the sun.
In the summer of 2010, Hoffman believed that he was primed for a breakout season ahead of his sophomore year. The forward and teammate Andy Rose had just trained alongside the L.A. Galaxy for the entire summer and Hoffman believed that he could help lead the young Bruins to NCAA glory.
However, before training camp was a day old, Hoffman suffered a broken fibula when he went to force a turnover from a goalkeeper during a short-sided game. Hoffman's teammate attempted to clear the ball, but instead struck the forward's leg, forcing him to miss the Bruins' first 11 games.
"I remember I picked him up and I brought him to my house with family and my kids to try and raise his spirits so he could realize that there was a light at the end of the tunnel," Salcedo said. "When you get hurt — and especially on the first day of practice — you feel like the world is caving in on you, and that's how Chandler felt on that first day. I felt very strongly about making him realize that just a couple months later, he would be back on the field."
After a rigorous rehabilitation, Hoffman reached that light at the end of the tunnel, and after returning from the injury, he closed the season with a flourish, scoring six goals in UCLA's final 11 matches. Despite his scoring flurry, the forward was unable to prevent the Bruins from falling in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament to Louisville in a thrilling 5-4 matchup that was accompanied by a blizzard.
This year, Hoffman is once again went on a torrid scoring streak, and again it's Louisville that stands in the way of UCLA reaching the College Cup. But in a way, even more is at stake on Saturday, as a victory against the Cardinals would allow Hoffman to return to native Alabama, which is hosting the national semifinals and final. He said family and friends have already begun snapping up College Cup tickets in anticipation that he will be able to make a triumphant homecoming to Birmingham.
"When we found out that the Final Four was going to be in Birmingham, it was like eight months ago, and from the time I've found out I've been so excited," Hoffman said. "Everybody seems to think it's destiny for us to make it this year. To play in front of my home crowd would just be an unbelievable way to end off the season."
As for next year, Hoffman would no longer be eligible for a lucrative Generation adidas contract should he decide to remain at UCLA. The chance at a GA contract seemed like a stretch when he began the recruiting process and even heading into this season, but through his incredible run of form, the forward has forced his way into the conversation.
Hoffman admits that he has had conversations with his family about his professional career and that the opportunity to earn a GA contract would be a "dream come true."
"I had expressed to the coaches even last season when I was deciding to red shirt or not that my ultimate goal was to win a national championship and get Generation Adidas,' said Hoffman. "I feel like I have a decent opportunity to do both, and certainly right now, my focus is on winning a national title."