Sunday January 24th 2021
Hoppe's impressive change
Much too aggressive for a playmaker
From Constantin Eckner
Schalke 04 is facing the sporting abyss. The traditional club is last in the Bundesliga with a meager seven points and needs an optimal second half to avoid relegation. The young US striker Matthew Hoppe will be a surprising hope in this endeavor.
Matthew Hoppe has caused a stir in the league over the past two weeks. First the 19-year-old scored three goals in Schalke's only win of the season against TSG Hoffenheim, then he scored one goal each against Eintracht Frankfurt and 1. FC Köln. Although Hoppe could not avert the defeats against the last two teams mentioned, there is a little hope among the Schalke players. The offensive – and especially the storm center – has long been considered an absolute weak point of the team. After the suspension of Vedad Ibišević and the serious knee injury of Gonçalo Paciência, it looked like the Royal Blues would have to do without any real tip.
But in Hoppe they have another tall and dynamic attacker who could possibly even cause a sensation together with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who has returned. However, the steep ascent of Hoppe may come as a surprise to some. "When he came to the U23, he didn't get a lot of playing time. He was just there," recalls Sean McCafferty, Hoppe's former youth coach in the USA.
In an interview with ntv.de, McCafferty reports that he is still in contact with Hoppe's father and also found out about it when Hoppe was called to train for the first Schalke team. "He scored in a friendly. And three weeks later he has already scored five goals in three Bundesliga games," the Irishman knows. It can go that way sometimes.
From playmaker to striker
The relationship between McCafferty and the Hoppe family is special. As a teenager, Matthew initially did not play on any prestigious team on the US west coast. Although he comes from the Los Angeles area, he was not brought to the youth academy by the local top club LA Galaxy. A trial training session at the Barça Residence Academy in Arizona in 2017 was to change Hoppe's career decisively.
"You could tell right away. He looked like he did now. He was tall and wiry, an intense runner. He always made those runs behind the defense. His work against the ball was phenomenal," said McCafferty. When he sees the videos of Hoppe's current appearances, McCafferty is immediately reminded of the time together. "I coached him over two seasons and sometimes even had to slow him down and tell him: 'Be a little cleverer. Sometimes you don't have to play a pressing at all.'" Interestingly, the 16-year-old was not a center forward at first. Before his time in Arizona he played continuously in the playmaker position behind the storm tips. "But when we looked at his physique and saw his aggressiveness in the box, we knew he should play for us as a striker."
Hoppe, however, initially unfamiliar with the new role, but McCafferty and the other coaches convinced him and showed him the important tricks of a striker. The positional change paid off. In his first year, Hoppe scored 24 goals in 30 games. In the following season, with 29 goals, he was even the best in his age group in US youth football. "He scored a lot for us – even against tough opponents. We played LA Galaxy and he scored a hat trick," recalls McCafferty.
Barcelona's only overseas office
Many football fans in this country may have never heard of the Barça Residence Academy. It is a branch of FC Barcelona, the only one of its kind. La Masia is well known as a youth academy in the Catalan capital, but the club decided a few years ago to open another one in the US. This is now in Casa Granda, Arizona, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the desert.
"You train according to the Barcelona methodology, which of course arouses a lot of interest," explains McCafferty. In 2018, a first group of five youth players from Arizona went to La Masia to train there. "They loved players like Caden Clark and Julian Araujo. And then it slowly became clear that this wasn't just a marketing project, but that we were producing real talent."
In his second year Hoppe was part of the delegation that was allowed to show itself in La Masia. The people in charge of Barça were also impressed by him, but at the time they couldn't engage Hoppe anyway, because a work and play permit for an American in Europe can usually only be issued from the age of 18, provided there are no direct roots to one European country exist.
Schalke didn't want to let him go
Hoppe therefore played the 2019 season to the end in order to then look around for opportunities. It is well known that German clubs keep a close eye on the American player market. Borussia Dortmund, for example, got Christian Pulisic from Pennsylvania and Schalke the Texan Weston McKennie. For a long time, the major league soccer club, the highest professional league, was not able to retain the most talented teenagers.
"There are consultants all over the US who work with European clubs," says McCafferty. In addition, every December there is a youth tournament in Florida, where the best players are part of the game. "Almost every German club sends scouts there."
Schalke came across Hoppe while monitoring their talent and invited the young striker to a trial training session – just like another Bundesliga club. "His father told me that Schalke didn't want to let him go without first signing a preliminary contract," recalls McCafferty. That contract was then signed and a little later for Hoppe it went to the Schalke "Knappenschmiede" and now to the Bundesliga team.
McCafferty himself, like his protégé, was drawn to the east, but only to the other end of the United States. He is now youth director at New York Red Bulls, but continues to watch Hoppe. The Irishman enthuses: "You can still see the things we used to train. The hat trick was certainly fantastic, but the goal against Frankfurt was pure mentality and anticipation. The goal shows what Matthew is like."