Then a month ago, less than a year after playing in the obscurity of the German under-19 circuit, the soft-spoken striker from Southern California simultaneously crashed the elite U.S. party in Europe, jolted the Bundesliga and offered hope to a famed club stomaching a cataclysmic season.
Hoppe (pronounced Hop-E) scored three goals in 21 minutes bridging halftime as Schalke defeated Hoffenheim, 4-0, and ended a 30-game winless streak in league play.
“It was pretty crazy how it all came about,” he said this week, reflecting on his rapid rise.
Never before in the Bundesliga’s 57-year history had an American recorded a hat trick. And it was accomplished not by Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna or any predecessors with brawnier names and portfolios.
“He had an amazing day,” Schalke Coach Christian Gross said. “He will remember it for the rest of his career.”
Hoppe, who turns 20 next month, did not stop there, scoring in subsequent matches against Eintracht Frankfurt and Koln.
He accomplished it while working under an amateur contract — crumbs compared with what full professionals earn in Germany. On Feb. 1, Schalke rewarded him with a pro deal through the 2022-23 season. Terms were not disclosed.
Hoppe’s exploits launched him into the national team conversation as a busy year of tournaments and 2022 World Cup qualifying commences. U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter will consider summoning him for friendlies in Europe in late March. He also could land with the under-23 squad vying for an Olympic berth.
“We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves," Berhalter cautioned. “A player establishes himself by continuing to perform at this level. It’s great to see him reach these heights, and now he needs to maintain it. And if he does that, I am sure he will get an opportunity with the national team.”
Hoppe’s run has cooled: four consecutive appearances without a goal for a club that, after 10 top-five finishes the previous 16 seasons, is last with a 1-14-5 record entering Saturday’s visit to Union Berlin and in danger of tumbling into the second division for the first time since 1991.
He is no longer catching opponents by surprise.
“Before, people didn’t really know who I was, but now I hear the defenders always saying my name or my number to the other defender,” Hoppe said. “They are always making sure they have an eye on me.”
Hoppe’s uncommon ascent began in typical youth soccer circles. He played for clubs near his home in Yorba Linda, Calif., experienced European tours and joined the Los Angeles Galaxy’s academy.
When that MLS pathway didn’t pan out, Hoppe, at age 16, enrolled in a residency academy in Casa Grande, Ariz., run by FC Barcelona, the Spanish superpower.
He had always been a midfielder, but at the Barcelona academy, coaches decided to try him at forward. The goals flowed.
“I kept telling [the coach] to put me back at midfield,” Hoppe said. “He kept saying I have natural instincts.”
Hoppe became the leading scorer in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a national web of top-tier youth academies and clubs.
Barcelona arranged a two-week stay at La Masia, the club’s famed developmental center in Spain. He also received tryouts with several German clubs, including Schalke.
Hoppe had planned to enroll at San Diego State, but the pull of Europe became too strong. In June 2019, he signed with Schalke. The first step was the U-19 squad, for which he scored five goals.
This season, Hoppe was promoted to the U-23 team competing in the German fourth division. Though his production was modest (one goal in 16 matches), the organization believed he was on track for first-team opportunities. Besides, Schalke’s awful season heightened the need to introduce fresh talent.
In a training game against the first team last fall, Hoppe scored for the U-23s.
“Since then, they called me up and I trained well,” he said. “They gave me the chance to make my debut, and I haven’t looked back.”
Hoppe’s Bundesliga debut came in a Nov. 28 start. In his third start, on Jan. 9, he ran wild against Hoffenheim and became the first Schalke player to record a hat trick since December 2014.
“It was hard to believe at first,” he said. “It was hard to process and realize it was real and it happened. But once I got those [goals], my confidence went up, and I was able to feel a lot more confident and show what I am capable of.”
At 6-foot-3, Hoppe is a natural target. But he also displays quality footwork and a killer instinct around the goal. In March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports leagues around the world, Hoppe returned to California and worked on his game.
“For four months, I figured out things I needed to improve: my first touch, shooting,” he said. “I worked on it every day. I returned with all those things under my belt.”
Hoppe’s skill set appeals to Berhalter. While the national team has a wealth of attacking players, many of whom are performing at high levels in Europe, there is a dearth of strikers. Jozy Altidore is 31, and Josh Sargent, who turns 21 this month, is finding his way at Germany’s Werder Bremen.
Others, such as 20-year-old Nicholas Gioacchini, are in the mix.
“What I really liked is the transition moments, the moments when Schalke won the ball,” Berhalter said of Hoppe. “There was space behind the defense he was able to really take advantage of with really clever movement. And then when he got into position to score goals, he finished them off with cleverness and really good effort.”
Hoppe was in the U.S. under-20 team’s plans last year until the pandemic wiped out the schedule.
He said he is “looking forward to whatever the U.S. national team has for me, and I can’t wait.” He was doing whatever he could, he said, to show he deserved a call-up.
His primary concern, however, is helping lift Schalke from the bottom of the Bundesliga. Two teams will fall to the second division, and a third will enter a playoff.
Relegation would be a massive embarrassment for a club that reached the Champions League’s round of 16 five of the previous 10 seasons and made the semifinals in 2011.
“That’s where all my focus is right now,” he said.
Though he has established his Bundesliga credentials, Hoppe remains a wide-eyed newcomer. After a recent defeat to Bayern Munich, he made a point of seeking out superstar Robert Lewandowski and requesting his jersey.
“Everything changed so fast,” Hoppe 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. It is like my dream is coming true, and it’s been special for me.”
Read more on soccer: