Chinonso Offor wanted to buy a new car.
There was one big problem. Chicago Fire FC’s new, 20-year-old Nigerian forward needed an American driver’s license. That meant a trip to a place that can break nearly anyone’s spirit—the Illinois Secretary of State’s Driver Services Facility.
Offor actually had to reschedule his first interview with Hot Time in Old Town because he was trying to navigate his way through Illinois’ version of the DMV. These days, a trip there practically requires a tent and a campfire. It can be a grueling process.
Luckily, “Chino” turned on the charm when he made it to the counter.
“We actually have some supporters there, because when I went in and introduced myself, they asked me what I do,” Offor says. “I said I played soccer. The ladies were like, ‘Where?’ I said ‘Chicago Fire,’ and they were like ‘No way!’”
At this point, Offor is cracking up recounting the story, and that laughter is infectious.
“They were like, ‘Why is he waiting? Answer him! He plays for f***ing Chicago Fire!’”
He’s still laughing like crazy.
“It was really fun!” he says.
Offor may be the only guy in history to describe a trip to the DMV as “really fun,” but considering what he’s been through in his life, it probably wasn’t a big deal. After a few seasons in Europe, Offor says he’s loving life in Chicago, with his first official MLS game just a few days away.
The story of how he got to the Fire—a journey that took him to several spots in Nigeria, to Cyprus, an escape back to Nigeria, on to Latvia, and eventually to the U.S.—is amazing. But, it’s even more incredible when you consider all that happened in two short decades.
Conflict in Nigeria, and a move to (and escape from) Cyprus
Offor was born in Jos, a city in the northern part of Nigeria. But he and his family fled his birthplace a year later. “It was a crisis,” Offor says.
That’s an understatement. When Offor was only one year old, riots broke out in Jos over the appointment of a politician. In just under a week, hundreds of people were killed, and tens of thousands more escaped the area. Never heard of it? There’s a good reason—this all happened the same week as the September 11th attacks, which overshadowed everything else at the time.
After fleeing the chaos, Offor and his family settled in Anambra State, in the southeastern part of Nigeria.
“We spent a few years there,” Offor explains. “Then we moved to Lagos where we currently live. I currently reside in Lagos with my family.”
It was in Lagos where Offor joined his first soccer academy, the place that would put him on track to becoming a pro. He spent some time playing midfield, then out on the wing, before a growth spurt—he now stands 6’ 3”—forced a change of position. “When I grew tall they had to convert me fully to a forward,” Offor says.
As a kid in Nigeria, Offor began watching European matches on TV, dreaming of one day playing there—he lists Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among his favorite players. But when it came to picking a favorite club, he went against the rest of his family and became a Gooner.
“Really, I don’t know why I started supporting Arsenal, because my dad is a Liverpool fan, and my brother is a Liverpool fan,” Offor says. “So I really don’t know how that came about, but I had an Arsenal jersey.”
When Offor was 16, his academy felt he was ready to turn pro. Since FIFA regulations prohibit the transfer of players between confederations until they’re 18, his options were limited. He landed at Binatli YSK, a club in northern Cyprus that isn’t a member of either FIFA or UEFA, which meant he could play there professionally despite his young age.
“I had a good run,” Offor says. “In two seasons, I was loaned to another club in Cyprus, and I did well.”
A potential move to a club in Sweden fell through because of visa issues. Five games into what would become his last season in Cyprus, Offor got a call from his old academy coach in Nigeria.
“He said, ‘You have to leave Cyprus. You have to come back to the academy, and we’ll prepare you to go to Europe from there,’” Offor recalls. “I said ‘OK, let me just play until half of the season, and I’ll come back,’ and he said, ‘No, you have to come back now.’”
There was a good reason for Offor to leave Cyprus right away.
“It’s crazy!” Offor explains. “The funny thing is, I left Cyprus without telling anyone. If I told them I was gonna leave, they wouldn’t let me leave. They did this to other players. I had to leave, because I had to think of my career.”
A Nigerian kid in Latvia
What was supposed to be a week back in Nigeria turned into eight long months without a club, as the now 18-year-old Offor looked for a new opportunity in Europe. That’s when he landed at BFC Daugavpils in Latvia.
“The first city I went to, it was more like a village,” Offor says. “You couldn’t find people who speak English. It was difficult to communicate when you go to the grocery stores. I didn’t learn any Latvian or Russian, because they speak like 50-50 so I didn’t know which one to learn. You have one teammate speaking Latvian and the other one’s speaking Russian, so it’s difficult to focus on one.”
He scored six goals that first season, and four more the next year before securing a move to FK RFS, another club in Latvia. While there, he scored six more times, catching the eye of a scout from the Fire. Offor had options in other countries, but he decided it was time for a jump to America.
“The growth of MLS, that’s one big reason why I decided to come here,” he says. “Those that don’t know still think of it like a retirement league, but in the past few years the players have potential and everybody’s watching.”
Coming to Chicago
After an injury in the first minute to Miguel Navarro, Offor was thrust into the Fire’s final preseason match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He spent some time on the wing, before settling up top alongside fellow striker Robert Berić. Fire head coach Raphael Wicky has said he’s comfortable with Offor playing as a solo striker, as a winger, or even as a second forward with Berić.
“It’s good we have that in case the coach needs that, maybe we need a goal and he says, Chino, go in with Robert,” he says.
The Fire’s current slew of injuries to attackers means Offor could see time in all those positions to start the 2021 MLS season. He says he’s happy to play wherever Wicky needs him, but it’s clear he’s still learning. During the Whitecaps match, his teammates were shouting “Chino, here!, Chino, there!” directing him where to go next, with some of that direction coming from Spanish speaking players like midfield star Gastón Giménez. Offor speaks no Spanish, but after trying to communicate during his stint in Latvia, that’s not a big deal.
“It’s funny, I don’t know how we communicate, but we do communicate!” Offor says, laughing. “I just guess around until I figure it out. I’m trying to learn Spanish. Hopefully the club helps me out with that.”
“Chino” is settling in, not only with the club, but in Chicago, too. He did end up passing that written test at the Secretary of State’s office. “I got the permit. The first try, I think I missed out on two questions. You’re supposed to score 28, and I scored 26. So I went in again and I got all the answers right.” Offor got his new car, and he’s planning to take the driving test to get his license as soon as he can.
Offor is taking that same attitude to the pitch, too. Keep working, do your best, and fix your mistakes when they inevitably come. After the things he’s already faced in his young life, it comes naturally.
“When you do well for yourself, good things happen,” Offor says. “Good stuff will come.”