Soccer newsletter: How Matthew Hoppe made it in the Bundesliga
Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start in the German Bundesliga, where many young American players have recently gotten their starts.
The one we’re focusing on today is Matthew Hoppe of Yorba Linda. Colleague Dylan Hernandez recently told part of his story through conversations with Hoppe’s father and former coaches. Now I’m going to let Matthew fill in the blanks of his rapidly accelerating career himself.
Last year, in his first season in Germany, Hoppe did little to raise eyebrows playing for Schalke’s U-19 team. But when the coronavirus shut down European soccer in March, Hoppe returned home to Yorba Linda, where he used the four-month break to work with his father, Tom, his first coach, on small details within his game.
“The most important for me were first touch and shooting,” said Hoppe, who trained two and three times a day.
The work paid off, because when Hoppe returned to Schalke in the summer, he was a different player. Soon he was scrimmaging with the first team, even scoring a goal against the players whose jobs he was trying to take.
That earned him his first Bundesliga appearance in November.
“I was able to show that I can compete with players on the first team,” he said. “And they gave me my debut and I haven’t looked back since.”
Why look back when the future is so bright? In his third start, Hoppe scored a hat trick, the start of a streak in which he scored five times in 11 days. By the end of January, he led the team in goals, had collected the jersey of Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski as a gift, and signed a new contract through the 2022-23 season.
“Everything changed so fast, in the span of a month or a half or two months,” he said. “There have been some moments where I was able to take a step back and look at all that’s happened. It is crazy.”
Becoming an overnight sensation took years of work, though, beginning in grade school when his parents made him choose between flag football, baseball and soccer.
“It was obviously soccer,” he said. “I trained every day with my dad, and that’s where I got a lot of my love for the sport.”
But if Hoppe, a month shy of his 20th birthday, would seem to have found success quickly, he had to endure years of frustration and disappointment first. He was always good enough to get an audition, it seemed, but he never made enough of an impression to break through.
On his club team, he played in the midfield alongside Efraín Álvarez, but while Álvarez would go on to score 11 goals in 17 games with U.S. and Mexican youth national teams, Hoppe was never asked to suit up. While Álvarez moved quickly through the Galaxy academy ranks to the first team, Hoppe, then just 5 feet 4, was cut.
At the elite Barcelona residential academy in Arizona, Hoppe was originally overshadowed by future Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, now a U.S. international.
“It didn’t really bother me that much. Obviously, they’re good players,” Hoppe said of the snubs. “Even though it was frustrating at times, I just had to keep working hard and keeping trying to prove I belonged there and could play with the best players in the U.S. and the best players in the world.”
The Barcelona coaches helped make that happen. Impressed by Hoppe’s soccer instincts, they moved him from the midfield to striker and he responded with 29 goals to lead all U-19 players in U.S. Soccer Development Academy competition. Shortly after, Schalke offered him a spot in its developmental system.
“It was my dream, ever since I was young, to play in Europe, to try to be a top player in Europe,” he said.
Moving half a world away to a place where he doesn’t speak the language was a tough transition for Hoppe, who lived in a team house and studied German in between practices.
“It’s hard to be away from home, away from your family,” he said. “But it’s a good experience and I’m able to learn a lot here. My German is getting better. I am able to understand everything that the coaches are saying in the meetings and in the trainings. I just need to improve on speaking it.”
There were struggles on the field too. Hoppe acknowledges he had a lot to learn and the learning curve was steep. But the chance to train with the first team helped, as did the knowledge that the Bundesliga had patiently nurtured the career of several young Americans, including Chris Richards, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Weston McKennie, who left Schalke 13 months after Hoppe arrived.
“It gave me some confidence and hope that Americans can play in the Bundesliga, that they can play at the top level. Especially young Americans,” he said. “That was helpful to me.”
Hoppe said his success hasn’t changed his daily life, other than dealing with additional media obligations, such as a 30-minute teleconference last week with about a dozen U.S. reporters. The additional recognition helped in other ways too, as when Lewandowski, arguably Europe’s best player, literally gave him the shirt off his back after a game last month.
“I asked for his jersey after the game,” Hoppe said with a grin. “He gave it to me.”
A week later, he received a new contract — although some might differ over whether that qualifies as a reward or punishment given that last-place Schalke (1-14-6) seems certain to be relegated.
“The biggest goal is to help Schalke stay in the first division. That’s where my focus is right now,” Hoppe said. “I want to keep scoring goals, keep helping the team any way I can.”
He’d also welcome a call-up to the national for next month’s friendly with Northern Ireland — a summons that seems likely given that coach Gregg Berhalter is in need of a healthy, physical No. 9, a profile Hoppe, now a strapping 6 feet 3, fits.
“I’m looking forward to whatever the U.S. national team has for me,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
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And in the third month, they rose again
Three months into the European schedule, the popular notion around the Premier League was that Manchester City’s season — and Pep Guardiola’s stay with the team — was about over.
After a lackluster 2-0 loss to Tottenham in late November, City was 4-2-3 and languishing in the bottom half of the league table. Couple that with a 2019-20 season in which it finished 18 points behind Liverpool while losing nine games — most in the Guardiola era and the second most in a decade — and it seemed clear the star-studded team needed new leadership.
Turns out rumors of Pep’s demise were greatly exaggerated, though, because City hasn’t lost since that Tottenham game, winning 16 straight and going unbeaten in 23 in a row in all competition. And it has trailed just once — for 22 minutes, in an FA Cup game — during that time, outscoring opponents 55-6 with 17 clean sheets.
It’s arguably among the most dominant three-month runs by a first-division team in English soccer history, and it’s one Guardiola accomplished largely without two of his top players in Sergio Aguero, who hasn’t started a game during the streak, and Kevin De Bruyne, who hasn’t played in nearly a month.
Guardiola pegged the turnaround to a mid-December draw with West Bromwich Albion that left City ninth in the standings.
“I felt this is not the team I recognize. I didn’t like what I saw,” he told reporters over the weekend.
So he called an emergency huddle with assistants Juanma Lillo, Manuel Estiarte and Rodolfo Borrell and Txiki Begiristain, the team’s director of soccer operations.
“We had to reconstruct the team from that point,” Guardiola said. “We had to return to our game —move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay in position, run less with the ball, do it together. The qualities of the players did the rest.”
The coaches made some technical changes too, the most important of which was moving midfielder Ilkay Gundogan forward. He is one of 14 players who have scored during the 16-game winning streak, finding the back of the net a career-high 11 times in the last two months, beginning with a goal against West Brom. And goalkeeper Ederson, who conceded seven goals in City’s first three games, has pitched 18 shutouts in 24 games since.
Guardiola also benefitted from the play of Joao Cancelo at right back and 20-year-old Phil Foden, who has been a workhorse on the wing and in the midfield.
“The reason why we have done what we have done so far is exclusively the personality and the talent of the players,” Guardiola said. “We have a few intelligent players here. When things are going bad, they step forward.”
For all of City’s star power, however, Guardiola said his team lacks a superstar such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who can win the biggest of games by himself.
“I would love to have a player who scores every single game four goals,” he said.
But, he added, not if he had to give up the players he has now.
“I wouldn’t change any player that we have right now,” he said.
Qatar reaches out to OCSC, LAFC to support local youth
The Embassy of Qatar made a $40,000 donation to the community foundation of the Orange County Soccer Club to “support healthy, active communities” in Southern California. The club said the donation will help fund clinics, mental health resources, equipment distribution and academic programs. Last fall, the embassy gave $15,000 to the team to support its partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.
The embassy, based in Washington D.C., also gave $25,000 to LAFC to support similar work empowering youth through athletic and mentorship programs. The awards were made on the second Tuesday in February, which is national sports day in Qatar.
“I have always viewed Orange County Soccer Club as a local soccer club with global reach and huge ambitions,” OCSC owner James Keston said. “Establishing a strong relationship with the Embassy of the State of Qatar in the United States, especially in light of the fact that Qatar will be hosting the World Cup in 2022 and the United States will follow by hosting in 2026, is another important step for OCSC in putting ourselves on the global soccer map.”
And finally there’s this ...
The Galaxy will continue what, at best, can be considered a modest roster rebuild this week by promoting a handful of players from Galaxy II, their USL Championship affiliate. But the team also announced Monday it had signed Jamaican international Oniel Fisher, a versatile defender/winger whom D.C. United elected not to keep in November. Fisher, 29, provides backup at both outside back positions as well as in the midfield and could prove to be a valuable addition. The Galaxy also signed midfielder Carlos Harvey, 21, who made six appearances last season on loan from Panamanian club Tauro. The Galaxy, who entered the week with 23 players on their first-team roster, are continuing their pursuit of Argentine attacker Cristian Pavón. ... LAFC, whose roster is at 26, added five players during the offseason, strengthening the defense with the additions of outside backs Marco Farfan, from the Portland Timbers, and Kim Moon-Hwan, from South Korea’s Busan IPark, and the offense with forward Corey Baird, who will enter training camp next month competing to fill the open spot left by the departure of Brian Rodríguez to Spain. ... The Galaxy have turned their home at Dignity Health Sports Park into a drive-through COVID-19 vaccination center this week with a goal of vaccinating 20,000 people, aged 65 and over, from vulnerable and underserved communities. Vaccinations are by appointment only.
“No one’s been able to consistently train and play, and I think that if there is a silver lining in this, it’s that all of our bodies could have probably used a break that we would never have gotten until we retired if not for this pandemic.”
Coronavirus survivor Alex Morgan, who will make her return to the national team in Thursday’s SheBelieves Cup, searching for a positive in the wreckage COVID-19 has had on both world-class soccer players and the population in general.
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