Chandler Hoffman fits in at UCLA
Alabama native, whose 15 goals lead Bruins, dreams of College Cup in his home state
They say Chandler Hoffman doesn't sound like a Southern boy anymore. And, after buzzing off the "swoop" -- a haircut made popular in his home state of Alabama that's distinguished by eyebrow-length locks that droop to one side -- he might not look like one, either.
Hoffman's talent for finding the back of the net remains unchanged, however. That has always been a constant.
The UCLA junior forward scored 15 goals during the 20-game regular season, guiding the Bruins to the Pac-12 Conference title and a No. 13 seeding in the NCAA tournament. Hoffman, tied for ninth in the country in goals scored, has a chance to add to his total Sunday night when the UCLA men's soccer team (15-4-1) hosts either Delaware or Virginia after a first-round bye.
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"This fall, from day one, the guys were looking to me to score goals," Hoffman says. "If they get me in good position, I'll score."
Hoffman, like the great ones, visualizes his scoring opportunities way before they happen. He idolizes Dutch striker Robin van Persie, also a left-footed player, and has a pregame routine that consists of watching 20 minutes of scoring footage, just so he can get in the right mindset. Hoffman analyzes the runs top players make, their finishes, their celebrations.
Maybe sometime soon a kid will be dissecting Hoffman's highlights in a locker room somewhere.
"Most of the time I have a couple staple videos that I'll for sure watch, like van Persie's top goals or Thierry Henry's top goals," Hoffman says. "Then I'll sprinkle in some recent games and goals so I can see how players at the highest level are scoring."
Thanks to a mutual trust with teammates, Hoffman is the go-to striker on a squad filled with capable scorers. A staggering 75 percent of his on-goal shots (15 of 20) made it past the goalkeeper during the regular season.
"He knows that it's his job and it's what the team needs him to do," fellow junior Ryan Hollingshead says. "He's a great finisher."
Los Angeles was instantly appealing. Hoffman first got the itch when he traveled west for a youth soccer academy showcase at the Home Depot Center. As his plane descended toward LAX, gliding past palm trees, he realized how beneficial a move would be.
"The weather, the level of play," Hoffman says, "totally different from what I was used to. I saw UCLA and the history of players they'd had, and it made me really want to come here. People told me, 'They only look at national-team kids, kids from California.' It seemed like the odds weren't really good for me, but I always believed that I was going to find a way to get out here."
Hoffman's way? Assembling a three-minute highlight video and uploading it to YouTube, which he then sent to the top college programs. He didn't think much of it at first, but what harm could it do?
"Literally as soon as I sent the video, coaches were e-mailing me, wanting to see me play," Hoffman says.
UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo was part of that intrigued bunch.
"It was very, very impressive," said Salcedo, who in his eighth season. "The number of goals he scored, his technique, his ability in front of goal -- it was just an impressive compilation."
Around 60 coaches lined up to see Hoffman at the next showcase in Illinois. He bagged a hat trick in the first game, and the scholarship offers rolled in by the dozen. Later, at an awards banquet, it was announced how much scholarship money the two-time Gatorade state player of the year had accumulated.
"It was well over a million dollars," Hoffman says. "I'm not sure on the exact number, but it was absurd."
When Hoffman narrowed his long list of schools to three -- Wake Forest, Maryland and UCLA -- his parents were naturally inclined to pull for the ACC schools. They were hesitant about their son's dreams to come west, mainly because they wanted to be able to drive to his games.
"Your whole job as a parent is to get them ready so you can let them go," says Jon Hoffman, Chandler's father. "It's hard to complain about where he is, but it's just a long way from Alabama."
It has been a satisfying comeback from last year's debilitating leg injury, which Hoffman calls the hardest thing he has ever gone through. A freak accident on the first day of training began harmlessly enough -- the goalkeeper took a long touch and Hoffman closed in for the steal. The keeper desperately reached for the ball but instead struck Hoffman's left leg, fracturing the fibula.
After embracing a new leadership role on a young squad and preparing vigorously for his sophomore campaign -- Hoffman got a feel for the next level by finishing crosses from David Beckham during summer training with the L.A. Galaxy -- he was sidelined. Take away a striker's strong leg and what's left?
"I heard the bone crack right when he hit it," Hoffman says. "I went down and it wasn't so much the pain of the injury, but just more of the fact that I wouldn't be able to play. I knew I was about to be faced with a pretty severe injury. It was really crushing."
He worked his way back and netted six goals in 11 games, but the Bruins fell in the quarterfinals for the second straight year. Now, with three more wins, Hoffman would return to where it all began. The College Cup -- soccer's version of the Final Four -- will be held beginning Dec. 9 in Hoover, Ala., a mere 10 miles south of Hoffman's hometown of Birmingham. It would be a sweet homecoming.
"It'd be great; no airline ticket required," Jon Hoffman says with a chuckle. "It's one of those things where you almost don't want to go there in your mind because you want it so bad, but it'd be amazing."
Blair Angulo is a regular contributor to ESPNLosAngeles.com.