Sometimes a player explodes onto the scene with superlative performances, demanding attention from the fan base and media, resulting in escalation to the national team. The emerging prospect is showered with praise and deemed the newest star, destined to become a key contributor. Schalke attacker Matthew Hoppe is the next potential entry into the growing constellation of American soccer talent. Although the hype is built off a mere three matches, his development can be charted on a direct upward trajectory, rendering his breakthrough of little surprise.
Born in Yorba Linda, California, Hoppe grew up playing baseball, football, and soccer, sharing a passion for the world’s game with his father. Despite reportedly being cut by the LA Galaxy, he thrived with various youth clubs including FC Golden State and Strikers FC. The latter team brought him to train in Europe, providing a taste of what would be required to succeed at the next level. His next move was to an organization that is currently one of the biggest producers of American talent.
Hoppe is yet another highly rated youngster that spent time at Barça Residency Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona, the former home to players like Caden Clark, Bryce Duke, and Julian Araujo. While at the residency program, he lit up the now-defunct United States Development Academy league. In 2018 and 2019, the striker scored a league-leading 29 goals at the U-19 level.
Hoppe credits Barça for molding him into a professional player and transforming his skill set. “[It] has prepared me and put me in the environment to learn how to become a pro,” he told Soccer Today. “It has sharpened my technique, improved my decision making, and helped me to work harder than I have ever worked before… At Barça, I started playing striker. It was new to me and required a lot of learning and patience.”
Originally committed to San Diego State University and following a trial with Hamburg, Hoppe joined Bundesliga club Schalke 04, signing a two-year contract with the historic German outfit on July 1st, 2019. “It was a tough decision to have to sacrifice my eligibility and not go to college,” he said in an interview with Top Drawer Soccer. “But I think for my long-term soccer career it was the best decision to make… I think that the opportunity to be able to play in the Bundesliga, one of the best leagues in the world, is an amazing thing.”
Hoppe started with the U-19s, scoring three goals in 17 matches. Last summer came promotion to the reserve team in the Regionalliga West. Not as prolific as many developing stars in the fourth tier, the young American only scored once in 16 appearances. He described the club as taking a “wholesome approach” focused on “the right technique and the tactics to be sharp.”
Goals and assists have little to do with the underlying quality of a player. Amidst Schalke’s poor form and key injuries, Hoppe was moved to the first team in November and quickly adjusted to the new level. In his last three league matches, he scored five goals, good for the team season lead and tying the 2021 total of Robert Lewandowski. His three goals in a 4-0 victory over Hoffenheim saw the teenager become the first American to score a hat-trick in the Bundesliga.
With one match, Hoppe entered the greater American soccer consciousness and earned plaudits across global media. AFP described him as an “instant hero.” Bundesliga.com named him “Man of the Matchday” for Matchday 15. Sky Sports commentator Dirk Große Schlarmann issued a public apology for doubting the young player’s inclusion in the lineup.
“We have a strong team,” Hoppe said after the match. “We’ve been through a difficult period and now we have a new-found confidence that can help us turn this win into some momentum. I hope that we can maintain that self-belief and pick up some more wins to help us stay up.”
Schalke failed to continue the run of good form, but the 19-year-old stepped up with a largely skillful, somewhat fortunate finish in a 3-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt. He worked his way behind the back line, latching onto a floated pass and putting his shot between the keeper’s legs from a tight angle. The finish was typical of a player on a hot streak, one that is confident enough to attempt a low percentage opportunity and skilled enough to convert.
Another game, another goal.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 17, 2021
Young American Matthew Hoppe is on a tear! pic.twitter.com/AOinuBFgi5
Hoppe once again received praise, this time being one of the few on his team to put in a good performance. As observed by Ruhr, “The young striker ran a lot to get into [advantageous] positions, but his colleagues rarely found him… and he does what he can.” This fourth goal made him the highest scoring teenager in the Bundesliga.
Not content to end the party, Hoppe scored again, this time in a heartbreaking, pivotal 2-1 defeat to FC Köln. He pounced on a loose ball in the box, slotting his shot past a sprawling goalkeeper. This goal had the least flourish of his finishes but will only serve to add to his growing record of excellence. As noted by Paul Carr, “He’s the third American with a goal on three straight Bundesliga matchdays,” joining national team icons Clint Mathis and Eric Wynalda. His performances may be the only bright spot for a club that seems destined for relegation.
Nothing new, just Matthew Hoppe scoring in the Bundesliga pic.twitter.com/HZaSIsMurE— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 20, 2021
After several seasons of success, Schalke is on a downswing, finishing the last two seasons in 14th and 12th place. This year, Die Königsblauen started on a 14-match winless streak, one that stretches to 30 when including the previous season. Despite the calendar showing January, ownership has already run through four different managers. At dead last in 18th place and deep in the relegation zone, the club is in “crisis mode” and needs a miracle to stay up. Perhaps they’ve found one in the young American, but manager Christian Gross insists he is “working hard to strengthen the squad – especially up front.” Competition arrived in the form of veteran Dutch attacker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who returned out of a sense of duty and responsibility.
The club should at least consider sticking with the hot hand. All five goals were superlative yet minimalist in their own way, taking one or two touches at most. His perfectly timed runs are only matched by the composure to get over, under, or around the goalkeeper. A 6’3” forward who models his game after Harry Kane, Erling Håland, and Lewandowski, Hoppe can do it all: fast enough to get behind opponent back lines and big enough to challenge for the ball on set pieces. According to Tor-Kristian Karlsen of ESPN, he is also able to be “utilized on either side of the midfield.” Manager Gross noted his “excellent attitude,” which comes alongside “dedication, humility, and willingness to learn.” His superior work rate off the ball has been noted several times, sometimes highlighting his teammates’ inability to play the final pass.
There are some fixable weaknesses, as is to be expected from a player two months into his professional career. Hoppe struggled to break into the starting lineup of the U-23 side, making his emergence in the first division all the more impressive. Like many strikers, chances will occasionally be squandered, with long, unproductive gaps stretching several matches. ESPN notes that “his timing in the air is a work in progress” and hold-up play is an area requiring improvement. For the next six months, training sessions may ultimately be preparing him for his next team.
If Schalke’s descent continues into the second tier, Hoppe and his club will soon be faced with a decision as his contract reportedly expires this upcoming summer. Staying at the Veltins-Arena would ensure continued playing time and allow him to develop his game against inferior competition. A move to a side remaining in the top division would provide the necessary escalating challenge for an upwardly mobile, potentially-developing-into-a-star player. However, that’s a problem for the future, a question to be answered after this season’s fate has been decided.
For now, Hoppe is a hot prospect, having permanently etched his name into the history books of American soccer. What lies ahead is the difficult task of maintaining consistency and struggling through patches of inefficiency. At the age of 19, those three performances against Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Köln could remain the highlight of his career or be the beginning of a long journey that includes competing in the Champions League and regular inclusion with the national team. Having never received a call-up from U.S. Soccer at any level, he may have jumped to the front of the line in a span of 12 transformative days.