Sports

Expectations on Hoppe keep rising, and he keeps exceeding them

Time was running out for Matthew Hoppe, in more ways than one. There was little more than seven minutes left in Sunday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal between the U.S. and Jamaica, but Hoppe’s night was going to end before the full-time whistle. Nicholas Gioacchini was on the sidelines ready to replace him. The next stoppage in play would see Hoppe carry a night’s worth of frustration with him to the bench.

At which point, Hoppe, 20, made sure he went out on a high. With Cristian Roldan’s deft cross arcing across the Jamaica goalmouth, Hoppe skied at the far post, outleaping Jamaica’s Oneil Fisher, avoiding attentions of Reggae Boyz keeper Andre Blake and headed the ball home to give the U.S. men’s national team a 1-0 victory.

Hoppe then exited the pitch, his job done. Nothing that happened before the goal mattered, be it the two times that Blake had stymied Hoppe’s fierce drives, or the occasional missed pass. What mattered more was the relentlessness with which Hoppe played and helped his team.

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“When a guy puts that type of effort in, and hangs in there and keeps going, we want to stick with him because we thought it was doing a good job and because he’s goal dangerous,” said manager Gregg Berhalter about Hoppe. He later added, “It’s also something we talked about; no space between the backline and the goalie. We’ve got to get it to the far post, and so it was a good play.”

For Hoppe, it was the latest milestone in a year full of them. Last November he made his first-team debut with club side Schalke 04. Six weeks later he became the first American to record a Bundesliga hat trick in a 4-0 win over TSG Hoffenheim, one that allowed Schalke to avoid setting a dubious Bundesliga record for longest winless streak in league history. He was soon adorning the front page of Kicker, the German soccer bible. (Hoppe made sure to grab a few extra copies.) People were soon stopping him in the street, although due to COVID-19 restrictions, neither as many nor as often as in normal times.

“A lot changed for me,” Hoppe told ESPN. “But at the same time, I tried to make everything the same, so I can just keep focusing on what I had to do because we were in a relegation battle. We didn’t have time to celebrate anything. We just had to focus and get on to the next game.”

Schalke was unable to avoid the drop, but that didn’t stop Hoppe’s run of success. He impressed Berhalter enough during a U.S. training camp prior to the CONCACAF Nations League finals that he was named to the Gold Cup roster. His debut came against Martinique and now he’s bagged his first international goal, all while playing an unfamiliar position on the left wing.

“I’ve been having to adapt to that, except it’s not something that’s new to me necessarily, because when I play striker, I like to move around to confuse the defenders, create spaces for myself and for other people,” he said. “So I’m used to not only stretching the backline, making runs in behind, but also dropping into the pocket to get the ball, and turning and driving at the opponent. I have what it takes to be a complete player, a complete attacker. I just have to keep developing my skills.”

There is a swagger to how Hoppe plays. Outwardly, there’s no shortage of confidence given the way he attacks opponents off the dribble, and strikes the ball with venom. But in the past year, new challenges have emerged. That transition from unknown to the cover of Kicker has waylaid plenty of players. Expectations get raised. Attention increases.

Hoppe admits there have been times during his career when expectations have weighed heavy. When he was at Barcelona’s residence academy in Casa Grande, Arizona, he said it wasn’t uncommon for him to throw up before games. Perhaps it was residual hurt from being cut from the LA Galaxy’s academy at age 14, or not getting called into U.S. youth national team camps. Or maybe with his dream of being a pro getting closer, he sensed what was at stake.

“I’d just be so tough on myself because I expected a lot from me,” he said. Over time, Hoppe learned to make pressure his friend and not his enemy.

“Embrace how you feel,” he said. ” And [it’s about] how you adapt, rather than how you react to it, you know? However you feel, that’s how you’re supposed to feel, and you’re supposed to work with it no matter what.”

By the time he got to Schalke, Hoppe had become more adept at being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When he moved up to the first team, he spoke of feeling “good nerves,” the kind that didn’t cause him to freeze up, but gave him the energy he needed to excel on the field. It made each step up the ladder easier to manage, although the demands to perform never completely went away.

“When I made my move to the first team, I guess there’s some pressure on me at first, things like, ‘Why are you playing this guy? Why are you letting him play forward? Why are you letting him lead the team?’ I got some goals and then eventually I just stopped letting the pressure get to me, and just decided to play.”

That freedom is now emerging with the U.S. team. Berhalter noted how Hoppe took some time off following the camp prior to the Nations League, and that it has been a process for the attacker to get up to speed. Now he sees progress.

“[Hoppe’s] improving with the concepts, with the position, with his fitness, the sharpness, so all these things have been progressing during the tournament in a positive way,” said Berhalter. “We know we’re asking him to play at times out of position, but it is what it is. We don’t have wingers on this team and it’s an opportunity, and sometimes that’s what you need to really make a difference.”

With Schalke set to spend the 2021-22 campaign in the 2. Bundesliga, the expectation is that the club will transfer Hoppe elsewhere. Various reports have clubs from six leagues — including the Premier League quartet of Newcastle United, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers — showing interest in the American. One source cited AS Monaco and Eintracht Frankfurt as being among those who are chasing Hoppe.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Hoppe. “My focus is on winning Gold Cup and getting another trophy for the USA.”

And meeting increasing expectations.

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