While two mostly domestic-based group of U.S. men's national team players train together in Florida, the Europe-based contingent keeps going about its business abroad—including one relative newcomer to the scene announcing his arrival with authority.
Matthew Hoppe's hat trick for Schalke in a 4-0 win over Hoffenheim registered as the most unexpected club performance by a U.S. international in quite some time, and in the process it ended the club's miserable 30-match run without a win in the Bundesliga. That was the unlikely headliner to emerge from a weekend that featured two U.S. cornerstones of the present and future squaring off and the No. 1 U.S. goalkeeper getting even more run with Man City–and drawing praise from Pep Guardiola in the process.
Here's what stood out the most, starting with the aforementioned new kid on the block:
Introducing: Matthew Hoppe
To consider how unlikely Hoppe's hat trick was: Before Saturday's performance, Hoppe had totaled 214 scoreless minutes for Schalke's first team across five matches in the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal. He had scored just once in 16 appearances (15 off the bench for a total of 339 minutes) for Schalke II in Germany's fourth tier before his ascension to the first team in November. Of all the dozens of Americans who have featured in the Bundesliga before—and among them are the likes of Landon Donovan, Eric Wynalda, Clint Mathis, Michael Bradley, Thomas Dooley, Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley and Christian Pulisic—not one had scored a hat trick in league play before.
Yet the 19-year-old from California, who had five goals in 20 appearances for Schalke’s U-19 team last season and wears the No. 43 on his back, was the one to break through with the landmark game out of nowhere. With the one showing, he's now Schalke's leading scorer on the season (with 25% of the club's league goals), which may say more about the state of Schalke's attack than anything else, but it's still another wild footnote from the day.
"I don't know how to feel," Hoppe said after the match. "I'm happy. I'm excited that the team got the win and that I was able to contribute to it."
There was nothing cheap about Hoppe's goals, either. His first professional tally was a deft lob over the goalkeeper with his left foot, the kind of goal you'd expect from an experienced star, not a novice. He timed his run perfectly for his second, again using his left after rounding the goalkeeper to finish off a second assist from Amine Harit. The Moroccan playmaker found him again to cap the hat trick, with Hoppe again showing the class of a more accomplished striker by chipping a sliding defender and the goalkeeper with the outside of his right.
“The first goal was the easier of the three, because I just instinctively chipped the ball over the goalkeeper,” Hoppe added. “I go for chips every now and again in training, so I’ve got the confidence to try it in a game.”
In all, according stats outfit to WhoScored, Hoppe scored with all three of his shots on target (he had six shots in total) and won a team-high five aerial duels.
“He’s a boy who’s unbelievably ambitious, has tremendous commitment and only thinks about Schalke," S04 manager Christian Gross said. "He wants to do whatever it takes to get us out of this situation. He really is a model professional. Even though he’s still very young, he doesn’t shy away from working extremely hard. Of course he’s still very young and still has lots to learn in order to become a top-rate finisher, but we’re working on that.”
Will the one performance snowball into a national-team future? Hoppe has never played for the U.S. at any youth level, instead honing his craft at the Barcelona Academy in Arizona before opting for a shot with Schalke over attending San Diego State in 2019. (To be fair, with U.S. youth international camps effectively wiped out this past year due to the pandemic, it's possible he would have played a role on the U-23 or U-20 levels in a coronavirus-free alternate universe). A match like Saturday's will certainly improve his placement on the radar, though, while suddenly drawing more eyeballs his way than he's ever had before. And it could well light a fire for the likes of Josh Sargent, who now has company in Germany when it comes to young American strikers with opportunity and acclaim.
McKennie suffers injury
It wasn't all good news on the Americans-abroad-with-Schalke-links front. On the heels of one of his most memorable moments as a pro, Weston McKennie was dealt a bit of a setback Sunday.
The U.S. midfielder, who scored in Juventus's big win over previously unbeaten AC Milan on Wednesday, left after just 19 minutes in the club's subsequent win over Sassuolo with an apparent muscular injury. He jogged off without looking particularly troubled, so it's entirely possible that Andrea Pirlo's decision was precautionary, especially with a key league match vs. Inter Milan looming this coming Sunday. Juventus labeled McKennie "day to day" in its follow-up on Monday, with tests revealing nothing too serious.
A day prior, McKennie was showing his love for his parent club, celebrating the end of its winless skid (and a compatriot's achievement). During the latter portion of the last Bundesliga season, McKennie was one of Schalke's only bright spots, and while he's fully expected to make his loan move to Juventus permanent, he still has plenty of love for the club that gave him the launching pad.
Reyna's Dortmund out-duels Adams's Leipzig
Entering the weekend, the Bundesliga match that was supposed to be appointment viewing for Americans was Dortmund-Leipzig. Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams both started, and with Bayern Munich having lost to Monchengladbach a day earlier, the match was rife with opportunity for each side to make moves at the top.
Leipzig ruined its chance to seize first with the 3–1 defeat and let Bayern's loss effectively go unpunished, while Erling Haaland powered Dortmund to within five points of the top with his impressive double.
Adams felt that strength firsthand, as he was the first to be bodied off the ball by the lumbering Norwegian and then couldn't take the ball off his foot during an attempted tackle on the impressive goal-scoring sequence that he started and finished to double Dortmund's lead.
Reyna was not as influential as Haaland to the win, failing to attempt a shot (though he did complete a team-high for dribbles). Adams, meanwhile, put one shot on target, completed 49 of his 59 passes (including all four of his long balls) and made three interceptions in Julian Nagelsmann's midfield.
Steffen checks off another competition
The was genuine concern surrounding starting U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen when it became clear he'd be staying at Manchester City this season instead of going out on loan like he did a season ago. With Brazil's Ederson the established No. 1 at the Etihad, would he receive enough playing time to stay sharp? Would the training environment outweigh a lack of first-team minutes?
Fast forward a few months, and Steffen has now appeared in the Premier League, Champions League, League Cup and FA Cup competitions for City, winning in each of his six starts, and he's looked the part in doing so. He wasn't troubled much in Sunday's 3-0 win over Birmingham in the FA Cup, making a pair of saves to post the clean sheet, but his internal momentum had already been building.
“He can fight for No. 1,” Guardiola said before the win. “He can put pressure on [Ederson], but Eddie is the No. 1 in this position right now. If he performs well, he stays No. 1. But we cannot forget he [Steffen] played at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford and solved all the situations he faced brilliantly.”
As Guardiola alluded to in part, Steffen can count Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Marseille among the sides he's beaten, and Ederson's testing positive for COVID-19 has opened up some opportunities Steffen may not have otherwise had. He's proved ready for the occasion, though, and with Man City reaching the League Cup final for a fourth straight season, and Guardiola's traditionally giving his No. 2 keeper domestic cup competitions as a forum to feature, he could find himself starting a final vs. Tottenham at Wembley Stadium in late April in addition to taking part in however far City goes in the FA Cup.
"I feel confident and have got into a rhythm, I think the players in front of me have done a great job during these matches, and I'm going to keep working hard to get myself out there," Steffen said. "It’s great to keep another clean sheet and having a run of games has been important to understand how we play better and I definitely feel settled.
"It was nice to get my first FA Cup match under my belt. I hope to play more cup games as the season goes on, so this is an important competition for all of us and one we want to win. We want to lift this trophy."
Olosunde scores first pro goal in defeat
Steffen wasn't the only American earning plaudits in the FA Cup. Matthew Olosunde, a former New York Red Bulls academy and Manchester United product, scored for Rotherham vs. Everton, a goal that was the 22-year-old right back's first for a first team in his pro career. The goal also wound up sending the second-tier Championship side's third-round matchup to extra time, where the Toffees wound up winning to advance.
Nevertheless, it's a notable achievement for a player with one USMNT cap (a May 2018 friendly vs. Bolivia; he was called in by interim coach Dave Sarachan) and who is still U-23 eligible.