CARSON, Calif. — Matthew Hoppe stood in the postgame mixed zone following the U.S. men’s national team‘s 0-0 draw with Colombia, soaking in what had transpired over the previous two hours.
There was no doubt he had put in a shift. He harassed Colombian defenders all night to the point of exhaustion. He made some dangerous runs in behind the opposition defense, his specialty, but there were times when he looked like he was trying to do too much and the ultimate payoff was missing. When presented with a clean look at goal in the 32nd minute, courtesy of a Jesus Ferreira pass, he could only shoot right at the keeper.
“I wanted a goal,” he said, “but you kind of focus on the positives.”
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For the 21-year-old native of Yorba Linda, California, it’s an apt summation of everything he’s been through in the past 18 months. The prolific spell in 2021, when he scored a hat trick for Schalke 04 against TSG Hoffenheim and went on to score six goals on the season, seems an eternity ago. So too does the game-winner he scored for the U.S. against Jamaica in the quarterfinals of that year’s Gold Cup.
Since then, there has been no shortage of effort. His game remains as high energy as ever, yet steady playing time has proved elusive. He managed just 129 minutes for Mallorca during the 2021-22 LaLiga season. The current campaign with English Championship side Middlesbrough has been no better, with just 62 first-team minutes.
It’s what ultimately cost Hoppe any chance of securing a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster, and now he finds himself decamping to his third club in 18 months, having secured a loan move to Scottish Premiership side Hibernian. The continued step down in level — from the Bundesliga and LaLiga to the English Championship to now Scotland — is clear, but Hoppe can’t be picky. He’s at the point now where he needs minutes wherever he can get them in a bid to get things moving in a positive direction again.
“As a player, you always want to play, you always want to get on the field. Yeah, it’s been hard, full of ups and downs the past two, two-and-a-half years, three years since I made my professional debut,” he told ESPN. “But I think I’ve been able to cope with the difficulties of it by realizing that some things are out of my control and that the only things I can control is my attitude, my work rate and how I can impact the team positively. You can’t beat yourself up over things not going your way.”
In conversations both prior to and after the U.S. training camp, Hoppe didn’t hide from the path his career has taken, nor the disappointment of not going to the World Cup. While he was on the fringes of the squad, a solid run of form may well have been enough to get him on the plane to Qatar. But that didn’t materialize, and now it’s a personal goal that will have to wait.
“As a kid you dream about going to the World Cup and playing for your country, and I have those dreams,” he said. “But sometimes the game doesn’t always go your way, whatever situation that could be. So I think it just leaves me more motivated to keep working hard and to not let that happen for next time.”
Circumstances did play a role in Hoppe’s difficult time at Mallorca. Some untimely injuries and a bout of COVID-19 hampered his chances to break into the first team, as did the relegation battle the club was mired in. A manager isn’t going to consider throwing a bone to a struggling player when the team’s top-flight status is on the line; ultimately, Mallorca finished just a point above relegated Granada after claiming wins on the final two matchdays.
“I had a good season at Schalke and a good Gold Cup. I had high hopes for the season [with Mallorca],” he said. “I think it was a big learning curve. It was a big change moving from a different country. There were so many different aspects to it. It was a lot of being in the right place at the right time.”
With playing time at Middlesbrough proving just as hard to come by, Hoppe opted to join up with the U.S. at the annual January camp. The optics of leaving his club in the middle of the season may not have been great, but he had to try something. And he found a coach in U.S. interim manager Anthony Hudson who not only was willing to help him break out of his funk, but who knew him and valued his game.
“What I like about Matthew is firstly, his personality on the field,” Hudson told ESPN prior to the Colombia match. “He’s an aggressive player, he’s fearless, he’s very direct. For me, he never seems afraid of the opposition. He has, like, a healthy disrespect. He doesn’t care who we’re playing. He’s a confident kid.”
Hoppe first caught Hudson’s eye when the Englishman was managing the U.S. U20 national team. When Hudson became Gregg Berhalter’s assistant with the full team, that relationship with Hoppe was cemented further at the Gold Cup. In terms of the just-concluded camp, Hudson also felt a change of scenery could help break the rhythm of Hoppe not playing and add a dose of positivity. The fact that Hudson was once roommates with Middlesbrough manager Michael Carrick, when the two were youngsters at West Ham United, made for an open line of communication.
Hudson feels that Hoppe’s self-belief hasn’t wavered despite his struggles — that much was evident against Colombia. By no means was Hoppe hiding during the match, but Hudson does feel the attacker can add more elements to his game. It can’t all be about the run in behind, and even that aspect can be refined.
“I think just his positioning in terms of how to set up runs in behind, how to engage a full-back to them running behind, the timing of doing that,” he said. “He’s quite a free player. He just likes to go and be free and go find the ball and then go and attack the box. And I think that when a team’s trying to build up and break lines, I think his positioning is something that he can always improve, but his raw and natural qualities are really, really good.”
Now Hoppe has to adjust to a new team and its way of doing things. That can make manufacturing confidence difficult, but Hoppe remains convinced that better times are ahead.
“For me, my confidence doesn’t come from how I’m playing. It comes from God, that’s who I believe in. That’s what I believe,” he said. “So I think I’m just doing the right stuff every day, working hard, and keeping a good attitude, and staying consistent with everything, then I’ll get my chance and I’ll just have to take it.”