Major League Soccer

Chinonso Offor: The Chicago Fire striker walking an unconventional path to the top

Chris Smith
Offor has taken an unconventional route to MLS.
Offor has taken an unconventional route to MLS. / Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

For Chinonso Offor, the road to Major League Soccer has been anything but straightforward.

There are many well-trodden paths to the United States top-flight; the homegrown system, coming up from South America, and crossing the pond after a long and successful career in Europe are just a few of the most common routes.

But have you ever heard of a player arriving in Chicago from Nigeria, via Northern Cyprus and Latvia? The was the reality faced by Offor, who joined Binatlı Yılmaz - a club not even affiliated with FIFA - back in 2017.

"I was still in high school and at the academy, but they knew I wasn't going to stay there for long," Offor recounted to 90min in an exclusive interview. "They wanted to get me some exposure, to travel and experience playing with different people, and get match videos and footage."

"Chino", as he's known to those close to him, was born in the Nigerian Middle Belt town of Jos in May 2000. But after just a year, he and his family had to flee to Ekwulobia in the south-east of the country due to political riots.

Offor's memories of that time are vague at best, with only some "scavenged" documents and pictures remaining from their bombed-out home. It was in 2012 when his soccer career got going, signing for the Real Sapphire academy in Lagos.

It quickly became clear that Offor was destined for a professional career in the game and, alongside getting exposure, his move to Northern Cyprus facilitated him getting a VISA to play in Europe. Ultimately, he'd end up in Latvia, first at BFC Daugavpils, then joining FK RFS.

"Before I made that move, I had another option of going to Sweden," Offor revealed. "Obviously, that's where I wanted to go at that time but I spoke with my manager. We thought Sweden was good, but Latvia is better because I'll get playing time which will help me quickly get recognised. In Sweden, I'd still have to take some time to adapt.

"So I moved to Latvia, and it was the right option because I had more game time and things went very well for me."

Indeed, things did go well. During his time in Latvia, Offor managed 16 goals and seven assists in 40 appearances. He also swiftly picked up some valuable fundamentals of the game.

"I had to quickly learn some tactical play, like how they set up from goal kicks," the 21-year-old said. "Obviously, it was different in Cyprus and in my youth academy. Every bigger country you go to, it's like another step in terms of knowledge. You have to learn things quickly. It was quite different."

Ultimately, Offor's form in the Virsliga started to attract attention from clubs across Europe, as well as the Chicago Fire.

"It wasn't an easy decision because, at that point in time, I had more offers in Europe from Belgium and Sweden," Offor said of his 2020 move to the Fire. "MLS actually came out of nowhere, it wasn't part of our discussion. Then I got a call from my agent asking what I thought of MLS.

"I was shocked. But we thought about it, analyzed it and went from there. The more I dug into it, the more interested I became, I was impressed by the standard of MLS and bought into it."

So, what exactly was it that stood out about MLS to Offor?

"A big factor behind my Chicago Fire move was the exposure of young talent in MLS these days," the striker said. "Players like Alphonso Davies going to top leagues. Those were the positives I took and why I wanted to be here. You get one or two good seasons and you move to the best leagues."

Almost a year has gone by since Offor landed in Chicago. Adjusting to the American lifestyle has been simple for a young man who keeps himself to himself, and has been on the move since the age of one. Getting used to new surroundings comes naturally to him now.

On the pitch, he's managed just one goal and two assists in 32 appearances, but often stands out as one of the Fire's hardest-working players. The Nigerian has averaged 18.1 pressures per 90 minutes this season - the third-highest amount of any teammate with 1,000+ minutes under their belts. He's also won a team-high 5.44 aerial duels per 90.

Despite the lack of goals, Offor is pleased with his start to life in MLS and what he's learned so far.

"I think I've adapted quite well," he replied when asked about is progress in the United States. "I've been able to adjust quickly and learn more from the experienced players in the team."

Of course, being a striker, Offer is well aware of the expectation on him to get on the scoresheet more frequently.

"The only thing left for me to do is score more goals because as a striker, that's the thing you're judged by at the end of the day," he added. "But other than that, I'm happy. We have a few more games left where I'll try to score, then I'll continue to work hard on that next season."

As is the case with many other young players in MLS, the long-term objective is to return to Europe, specifically the "top five" leagues. But in the short-term, goals aside, Offor is dreaming of restoring the Fire as a force to be reckoned with in MLS.

"It's been a while since the Fire made the playoffs," Offor said of Chicago's absence in the post-season for seven of the last eight seasons. He added: "I would like to add that to my list of achievements, I want to go down in the history books with the Chicago Fire, winning a trophy."

Offor's career has taken him to strange places but, thus far, he's broken down every barrier placed before him. You wouldn't bet against him achieving his next goals and, one day, returning to his European dream.