A View from Afar / Commentary

Chandler Hoffman and the overlooked gems of U.S. soccer’s minor leagues

Photo: Earl Gardner

How wide is the gap between MLS and USL and NASL?

Or, to target the question more accurately, what determines which top minor league players can make the leap to MLS?

The question popped up anew this week when considering former Philadelphia Union No. 1 draft pick Chandler Hoffman.

Hoffman, 25, has been lighting up USL scoring charts the last two-plus seasons, with 21 goals in 31 games for three teams, mostly while on loan from MLS clubs. He netted a hat trick this past weekend to lead Louisville to a 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati before a USL regular season record 20,497 fans, earning USL’s player of the week award in the process. Basically, every time Hoffman has gotten extended minutes as a professional, he has scored.

Yet the fifth year pro has barely gotten a sniff of playing time in MLS. Hoffman spent four years on the books with Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Houston but only saw the field for a combined 295 minutes. Only three times in his career has he played more than 20 minutes in an MLS game. His next MLS goal will be his first.

Is Chandler Hoffman the next Chris Wondolowski?

Why can’t a guy who scores so often in USL get extended minutes in MLS?

For one part, he has consistently landed with clubs that simply didn’t have room for him or offer him extended minutes.

  1. Philadelphia, 2012: This was the year Peter Nowak blew up the team. Not exactly the best situation for a rookie. There was an opportunity to seize minutes after Nowak was fired, but Jack McInerney ended up being the one who took it and ran with it.
  2. Los Angeles, 201314: Hoffman was buried behind Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Alan Gordon and a group of young, homegrown players. He spent most of 2014 on loan in USL.
  3. Houston, 2015: Hoffman was not only below Will Bruin and Cubo Torres on the depth chart, but also some guy named Rob Lovejoy.

After being released by Houston at the end of 2015, Hoffman chose to sign with Louisville in USL.

In some ways, Hoffman’s experiences sound an awful lot like those of Chris Wondowlowski, who couldn’t regularly crack an MLS starting rotation till he was 27 years old and traded to a new team. He now stands poised to break the MLS scoring record if he can maintain his performance over the next two years.

Does Hoffman just need to get a similar break somewhere, so that he can get enough minutes to demonstrate similar production? Did he not impress enough on MLS practice fields? Does his style of play not fit a league where most teams have moved to one-forward sets? Does he simply feast on inferior opposition? Or is he, in fact, an overlooked gem?

USL stars are breaking through to MLS, but how many still get missed?

In recent years, signs have emerged that the gap between MLS and minor leagues USL and NASL may be smaller than perceived, or at least it is in certain cases. Like anywhere else in the world, there are plenty of good players plying their trades in the lower divisions just waiting for an opportunity to break through at a higher level.

Philadelphia Union’s starting center back tandem is an excellent example of that.

Defender Richie Marquez couldn’t even get a sniff of Division 1 college soccer, spending four years at Division 3 University of Redlands in California. After a year on loan with USL’s Harrisburg, he has become the Union’s best defender and a U.S. national team prospect.

Fellow starter Ken Tribbett failed to land a pro contract his first year out of college and had to return to the semipro ranks in 2014. Tribbett then signed with Harrisburg, effectively replaced Marquez in their starting lineup, and was a finalist for USL rookie of the year. Many were surprised when Tribbett won a contract and starting job with the Union in training camp, but for the most part, he has shown that he deserved both.

Each player needed a break, the right opportunity in the right place at the right time. Marquez had to wait for two players to get hurt last season before he saw the field in an MLS game, even after an impressive rookie year with Harrisburg. Once he got his chance, he played well and never looked back. This year, Tribbett seized on Maurice Edu’s absence from the back line to win a three-way competition for a starting job next to Marquez.

Other quality MLS players like Sebastien Le Toux, Luke Mulholland, and Osvaldo Alonso have made the leap. Los Angeles center back Daniel Steres spent the last three years in USL, and now he’s a starter for one of the marquee teams in MLS.

Will Hoffman ever get that opportunity and see extended, meaningful minutes in MLS?

How many other MLS-quality players are chugging away in USL and NASL, just waiting for a break?

Is Walter Restrepo, the Union midfielder who spent five years in the American minor leagues, among them? How about the contingent of former Union players now playing in USL for FC Cincinnati, including notably former MLS Rookie of the Year and defender Austin Berry, who has already scored twice in four games for his hometown team?

As MLS clubs look overseas for talent, sharp general managers have shown they can find talented players in America’s minor leagues who were either overlooked or rejected too early. Perhaps another smart one will give Hoffman and other players like him a legitimate chance at the big time.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    This is an article that instigates an argument for me, unintentionally, for so many of the reasons I have pounded on about for the last 2 years.
    It’s a good read. Yes many are getting missed, yes many are never even seen, yes at least abroad these lower level players plying their trade are doing so with at least the chance of their team promoting to the top and getting a chance to be seen. At least the quality is so much better in many of those lower divisions. In a parallel MLS universe Chandler Hoffman or some obscure Egyptian would have a whole different paradigm or at least earn a favorable living.
    So many reasons this article strikes a chord for me, blood pressure elevates and I just have to stop…
    Good stuff Dan for highlighting, whether intentionally or not, a weakness in our development model.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Was just thinking of you my friend…
      My first thought exactly. The entire article builds the foundation for the pro/rel arguments.

    • Oh, I know. Pro/rel, NASL, etc. I applaud your restraint in your comment. I figured we’d be going down that rabbit hole. 😉

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Makes me smile~ as the idea of a minor league system tells me everything I need to know about US Soccer.

      • It’s a good argument. Just look at Vardy. Without PRO/REL, there is not Jamie Vardy story. He’d still be at FC Halifax Town.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Vardy is the most tangible example right now. But there are plenty of players around the world who’ve been given and lost opportunities due to pro/rel. It’s great stuff.

  2. Marquez is a national team prospect? That’s news to me.
    Otherwise, I liked the insights into the, perhaps, over-imagined, gap between USL and MLS

    • That caught my eye too…love to know what basis for this statement is.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Yeah…. Great piece but I’m not so sure about that

    • Yep. That’s my claim. “Prospect” is a pretty broad and subjective term, and I’m using it! You heard it here first, and I will be happy to defend that as needed. 🙂

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        With the US and it’s current CB issues… I would call him a prospect for sure.

      • Add Rosenberry to the list as well. His technical skills are leaps and bounds above Yedlin and Zardes. – Whether or not he has the raw speed I think will be the ultimate conclusion.

      • haha, fair enough. I’ll reserve judgement on national team prospects for another season, but I’d love nothing more than to see him reach that

    • Marquez >> Miazga by a mile

      • Miazga plays for a club in a top 4 euro league that is a regular participant in the CL (though not next year). Marquez plays for a mid-table MLS club. Regardless of playing time and form, is there any question who Klinsy will pick?

      • In another 3-4 years?…
        Both maybe?

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    I think that the biggest challenge that young American players face in MLS is that most managers (and teams) won’t have the patience to play them at certain positions like striker. If a team knows if they are planning to sign a DP level player, that’s the most logical spot and signing a big name striker will also help sell tickets.

    Look at Jack Mac. He’s turned himself into a good MLS striker, but absent an injury to Adi (or Kamara last year), he’s only going to see the pitch for 15-20 mins each game, tops.

    If Chandler Hoffman hadn’t gone to college for a couple of years and was having this USL success at 23 instead of 25, he would probably be in MLS. However, he would likely be in the same position that Jack Mac is in at Portland…late game/back-up striker.

    I agree with you Dan that the level of play is not that much different in MLS than NASL or USL at times.

    • I can’t say I have really watched much NASL or USL before the Steel this year, but until these leagues start beating MLS teams in the open cup (which usually aren’t even the MLS team starting 11) I cannot believe the level is as close as is being stated here. Also the fact that a lot of these players were on MLS rosters but not deemed good enough and then blow up in the lower levels does not help the argument either.
      Not saying there are not MLS level player in these leagues, but it’s honestly silly to say the level of play is not much different. At least to me.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Judging a team’s level of play shouldn’t just be a results based exercise or whether someone made a roster. There are a lot of players who could be and have been on a MLS roster, but don’t want the role or contract that MLS offered and decided to play in NASL.

      • el Pachyderm says:


      • Well I stated that there were MLS caliber players in these other leagues. And yes, you can look at results to see which league is better. Last year in the open cup the cosmos were the only NASL team to beat a USL team and very few USL teams beat MLS teams. Clearly the leagues as a whole are not that close. To say otherwise is just putting your head in the sand.
        And the unearthed gems of the USL and NASL aren’t the type of players that are getting good contracts in those leagues. Any young player in those leagues is taking the contract from the higher league.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Gently disagree that they levels are not discernably different between USL and MLS.
      Watched the union v. Seattle Saturday night on the tube and the Steel v. Richmond in person Sunday afternoon. Pace of play noticeably slower. Level of conditioning inferior. Speed of thought lesser. Much less movement off the ball and the onset thereof was noticeably sooner.
      Eric Ayuk stands out on a USL field because he has MLS pace, to some degree its conditioning, and in some situations its speed of thought.
      Pedro Ribeiro two seasons ago with Harrisburg – my observations were strictly from You Tube videos – was a dominant player on the pitch. He is usually in the eighteen in MLS, but not a starter because of pace.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        That’s fair. Haven’t watched a ton of USL, but have seen more NASL and feel that that is not much different than MLS. So I probably should have been clearer in my statement.

      • Well, I asked the question about the gap in my lede, largely because I needed a way to break into the column and didn’t have a better one. The second question of the column is the more accurate focus of the column. Why do some players slip through the cracks? And … do they?

      • They do… They do in the EPL as well. Just look at the whole Leicester team. A bunch of players written off by other teams, and some never got a chance (like Vardy). It just takes a good coach, & environment to get the team / player to ‘click’. Some get ‘discovered’ way too late.
        Interesting article in the latest EPYSA mag about a Lehigh girl with the name ‘Lewandowski’. She has been killing it in Germany for 8 years and only got into the national team this summer!

      • Another interesting thought project Guido…and piggy backing off of Dan C. below…is to see how many internationals are playing in our minor leagues… can I tell you how disturbing it is to say that?
        Minor leagues. Farm teams. What function is USL really going to serve? How many kids are going to matriculate to USL straight from Academy then to The Show… is the standard there in a few years that Continental FC could matriculate players to USL since we still have such happy happy feelings about college letters of intent? What happens if this is the case and the college level player can’t carry the jock strap of a 22 year old academy to USL player….How about ‘your’ kid with professional aspirations. What advice are ‘you’ going to garner him?
        So much to wonder. So much to wonder. So much to wonder. .
        In ten years when the average american player is still just average and the national teams are still just average, and the outliers run for europe will people still be drinking the well water thinking everything is okay?
        Or will they finally begin to wonder if this average-ness was or is and possible has been the whole goal all along.
        In ten years will the average MLS casual fan stand up and protest or just continue to be mesmerized by Kaa.

      • MLS of 2006 looked nothing like MLS of 2016. Why is the assumption that MLS will not improve in the next 10 years? I freely admit it will still not be close to the big European leagues, but the point of the MLS (from their view) is to make their teams more and more money, not create the National team.

      • I think that we need a healthy dose of that “vision, plan and philosophy” thing at the national level for both our national teams and professional leagues… combined with a considerable amount of patience. We need changes and answers to many questions (what is the role of USL? how/will the college game remain relevant?) and they may come, but it will likely take time. I don’t forget that 26 years ago the closest “professional” soccer I watched was the Penn-Jersey Spirit who played at Trenton State… er, College of New Jersey. A lot has changed in American professional soccer over that time. Let’s not forget that. Though we have a long history of professional soccer in this country (as this site regularly reminds us with great posts), we have probably never been closer to developing a real pyramid until now. It isn’t perfect, but I’m excited about that and am looking forward to watching the professional leagues evolve.

      • Some of these players could be the equivalent of baseball’s so-called “quad A” players – the guys who tear it up in AAA but struggle in the majors.
        And I agree with Dan C below: MLS expansion is likely going to help those players get a shot, simply because there will be that many more domestic roster slots that will need filled.

  4. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    This may actually be where expansion of MLS helps the American player. Although Internationals are capped at 7 or 8 per team (I forget the exact #) as we all know, once a player receives a green card they are removed from that list. There are a number of teams who have a very high amount of foreign players which leaves little room for the American players like Hoffman. Perhaps with expansion more spots open up for Hoffman and the like.

    Also, before I get killed, I’m not a xenophobe, I don’t have a problem with internationals playing in MLS, especially when it raises the quality. I’m just saying that if everything is equal a coach will be probably be biased towards an international player. I mean, how many of us are biased towards watching foreign leagues? So in short, more teams, more opportunities for players in the USL, both foreign and domestic.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Each team starts with 8 international slots, but the slots are tradeable, so some teams have many fewer than eight and some many more.
      The Union in the central third of the center channel have three domestic players of seven total, all three #6s, Creavalle, Edu and Carroll. Nogueira is green card, Alberg, Barnetta, and Ilsinho are all internationals at the #8 and the #10.

      • Jim Presti says:

        How many players have green cards? Maybe half a dozen? Blake, Fabinho, Nogs, Le Toux…

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Fabinho, Andre Blake, Matt Jones, Vincent Nogueira, Sebastian Le Toux, Michael Lahoud are all the green cards on the current Union roster to the best of my knowledge and records.

  5. One of the most difficult challenges is that it is nearly impossible to separate and individual soccer player’s performance from his/her teammates. You’ll never see true finishing ability on a team that can’t serve the ball. You’ll never see speed of thought on a team that doesn’t move off the ball. At some point, it takes a coach with vision to see the potential in a player and the bravery to take a risk on putting him in the lineup. We don’t have those managers in MLS.

  6. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    I know it is off topic, but we can now stop making jokes about the Union having 25 starting goalkeepers since the Eagles now have three starting quarterbacks.

  7. The alpha and the omega laid out nice nice nice. Think from now on, I’ll just reference this Timber fan’s piece.
    The word….is duped.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      By the way, I urge the writers on PSP and those who spend a good deal of time at this sight pounding on about Union and MLS and national or international soccer to read ptfcollective.com’s Statement of Intent. It is magical. It is.

      • el P…thank you for that link (great article) and the suggestion about the Statement of Intent. I think we here on PSP uphold that spirit. On the PRO/REL front, I would love to see it, but don’t expect it in my lifetime.

    • nice article, thanks for the link, although firefox/noscript seem to have problems with it
      the pro/rel argument is already boring, and will remain that way until pro/rel arrives, which will be a long time from now
      I will not be participating in the pro/rel argument because I don’t want to be boring, but I understand why so many continue to keep it up, because if you do not keep arguing, the arrival of pro/rel is likely delayed, even a little, a year, a few years, so, I get it, but, on the other hand, please, please, please, please stop
      or don’t do it as much

      • I understand Osager, and it is a good article and I do rail on about it, but as my children would say, “Dan started it” this time.

      • “I don’t care who started it! I’m ending it!”
        ~Me, to my kids whenever they try to trot out “he/she started it” as a valid argument…

  8. John P O'Donnell says:

    Players like Hoffman exist in every league. He’s a young player that sits behind a starter that makes considerably more. Unfortunately, he plays for a coach that might worry about his job or doesn’t see how he can sit a superstar. Just look at Jim Thome and how he kept Ryan Howard on the bench for so long. The problem with Hoffman is he can’t go to a MLS team that he has a chance to win a job with and the player in front of him was declining in skill. Luckily the trend is now moving toward playing young players and away from DP’s after last year’s cup finalist and Red Bull winning the Supporters’ Shield.

    • pragmatist says:

      Sam Bradford is a year away from getting shipped out of town, through no fault of his own.
      You’re absolutely correct. Every sport, every league. Some guys just pull the short straw. It takes great scouting to realize there is talent wasting on someone’s bench and use it better.
      Kinda like that 7th Round QB in New England that wasted a few years backing up Drew Bledsoe.
      Or that no-name that filled in for Wally Pip one day…

  9. pragmatist says:

    This has been one of my points for a while: US Soccer, at every level, is woefully deficient at identifying talent. Especially if that talent is not part of FC Expensive Soccer Club (redundancy intended).
    For some reason, we can find 10 year old kids who eventually be #1 NBA/NHL/MLB/NFL draft picks, but Soccer Incorporated has been inept at finding kids and developing them correctly.
    My hope is that the proliferation of Academies will help to alleviate this. European Academies pull kids from all walks of life, as long as they find the best talents. If we can do that here, we’ll be able identify and develop these kids so they are ready to contribute at 18, or 23, whenever they are ready to make the leap.

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