No. 43 isn’t really a conventional soccer number. It’s a free safety’s number, a NASCAR number, a number that looks slightly out of place in a sport where jerseys with lower digits predominate.
That stems from the sport’s black-and-white days, when the 11 eligible players were numbered 1 to 11 and positions often had numerical designations. The center forward wore No. 9. Consider how far 43 is from 9, and you’ll have a sense of how far Matthew Hoppe once was from leading the line for a big German club—a club that’s counting on him to help deliver a miracle.
Hoppe was unexpected, just another young, relatively unknown American toiling at the fringes of a European club. He was a project. But Schalke 04 was a team in crisis, falling to the foot of the Bundesliga and in need of fresh legs and a spark. When Hoppe was called up to the senior side for the first time in late November, having scored just one goal in 15 games for the reserves, he found the No. 43 shirt waiting for him. No one asked what number he preferred. He didn’t think to tell anyone. He was at the bottom of the roster. Expectations were modest.
“I was brought up pretty abruptly,” Hoppe says. “I walked into the locker room for the game, and there was No. 43. It was 43. I had a few numbers growing up and I didn’t really care much at that point, because I’d had so many.”
He might want to consider keeping this one. It’s been seen around the world and now is part of club lore, thanks to a stunning hat trick in January that helped Schalke avoid German soccer infamy. Hoppe, a 19-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif., has risen from unheralded reserve to joint top on Schalke’s goal-scoring chart. Two weeks ago, he signed his first professional contract, tying him to the grateful club from Gelsenkirchen until the summer of 2023. Unwanted by his local MLS outfit and overlooked by junior U.S. national sides at every age group, Hoppe has provided his desperate, 116-year-old German team that spark.
“I think after I got my first goal, I felt like I was about to cry,” he says. “I think it took me a few days and even a few weeks just to process the whole thing. I still look back and watch all the clips and it gives me a special feeling. ... I think it changed my life.”
Saturday is the 158th competitive Revierderby, the grudge match between Schalke and its eternal rival, Borussia Dortmund. Berlin is Germany’s capital and Munich hosts its top team, but the industrial Ruhr valley in the west is the spiritual home of German football. And the Ruhr revolves around the Revierderby, the coal (Schalke) vs. steel (Dortmund) turf war between clubs situated just 20 miles apart.
There will be an American on each side. Dortmund has Gio Reyna, the son of two former U.S. national teamers. France’s renowned L’Equipe just named him one of the top five U-20 players in the world. Reyna, 18, was a U.S. U-15 international and the star of New York City FC’s academy teams while father, Claudio, a National Soccer Hall of Famer, was the MLS club’s sporting director. Gio made his senior U.S. debut the day before his 18th birthday. He has pedigree to spare and has been pegged for stardom for years.
And Schalke has Hoppe, who was cut from the LA Galaxy academy after a single season and who, if not for his successful 2019 tryout in Gelsenkirchen, probably would’ve enrolled at San Diego State. The soccer team there has made a single NCAA tournament appearance in the past decade. Four months ago, only the most dedicated followers of U.S. prospects knew who Hoppe was.
The odds that he might share a field with Reyna in 2021, and the odds that he’d catch the eye of U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter, were incalculable until recently. But that’s the beauty of the global game. One never knows where the next breakthrough player might be hiding.
In Hoppe’s case, after being dismissed from the Galaxy academy, it was with the Irvine Strikers, a competitive youth club in Orange County, Calif. He got his first taste of German soccer during a two-week tour, and then at 16, he earned an invitation to play at Barcelona’s affiliate academy in Casa Grande, Ariz. There, Hoppe switched permanently from attacking midfielder to striker. Tall, aggressive and blessed with an appetite for thankless running, Hoppe developed into an elite target forward, and he was among the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s leading scorers. In the summer of 2019, Hoppe returned to Germany for a couple of trials. Schalke wouldn’t let him leave until he’d signed an academy contract. It was San Diego State’s loss.
Gelsenkirchen once was the heart of European coal production. Schalke’s club culture is infused with mining, from the player tunnel at the Veltins-Arena, which is designed to resemble a mine shaft, to the Knappenschmiede academy, which has been one of the country’s most productive. “Knappenschmiede” translates very roughly into “where young miners are forged.” Schalke is accustomed to labor-intensive development. It fits the culture. Players are stars when they leave, not when they enter. Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Leroy Sané, Julian Draxler and U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie are among the graduates.
“We are famous for hardworking men,” Schalke technical director Peter Knäbel says. “We love this attitude—the coal miners. Maybe you don’t fulfill every technical criteria when you come, but you invest. You go on. You are positive, natural, direct. We love these people in our region—to be open-minded, to be interested in learning. It really matches with the west part of Germany.”
Hoppe fit in. He’s relentless and voracious, motivated by shortcomings rather than intimidated by them. After scoring five goals in 20 appearances for Schalke’s U-19 team, Hoppe was sent back to California at the onset of the pandemic.
“I was expecting to be home two to three weeks, and then I ended up staying home for four months,” Hoppe says. “I would train every day, two to three times a day. I’d wake up at six in the morning every day to train with a small group of people. It was so my body would have some time to recover throughout the day. And yeah, I was able to come back [to Schalke] sharper than I’d ever been and fitter than I’d ever been. I don’t think I’ve worked harder in my whole life than those four months.”
Upon his return, Hoppe earned a promotion to Schalke II, which plays in Germany’s regionalized fourth division. But there was something in the air over Gelsenkirchen last fall. While Hoppe struggled to score, the senior team nosedived. At the end of November 2019, Schalke was in third place in the Bundesliga. It finished the 2019–20 season in 12th. A year later, in November 2020, it was in 18th—dead last. Head coach David Wagner, a former U.S. national team forward, was fired after two games. His replacement, Manuel Baum, was let go in December. When Christian Gross was appointed two days after Christmas, Schalke was 0-9-4 and already facing the prospect of relegation.
Schalke is a big club. It advanced as far as the UEFA Champions League round of 16 five times in the 2010s. On Deloitte’s most recent annual list of the top revenue-generating teams on the planet, Schalke ranked 16th. Relegation typically is an unthinkable impossibility at clubs like that. But circumstances have been unkind at Schalke, which was deep in debt and flirting with bankruptcy following the summer 2020 resignation of longtime chairman Clemens Tönnies and the deep impact of the pandemic, which eradicated match-day revenue. Several players, including McKennie, were sold or loaned out in an effort to boost the books. As the 2020–21 season unraveled, there were disciplinary issues with a few important senior players.
It was into this storm that Hoppe was thrust. And it was because of this storm that he got his chance.
“If the first team was winning all its games, I think Matthew would’ve never had the chance to go up,” says Schalke II GM Gerald Asamoah, a club icon who played for Germany in the 2002 World Cup final. “He had the chance to move to the first team to train with them, and he performed well. The situation with the first team is not good, so the young guys have a chance to move up when they do their best in my team.
“Matthew is a player. You can put him on the field and he just runs,” Asamoah continues. “He’s a fighter. He was a fighter and he’s fast, and I think the position where we are with the first team, we needed such a striker who is fast, who will find space to run inside, and Matthew was the one who did it well. So that’s the reason why he got the chance, opening spaces for the other players.”
Nobody expected goals. Schalke needed a player to stretch the field, someone who might make the opposition sweat a bit when the ball turned over, and Schalke looked to create a chance on the counter. That role requires immense fortitude, because a lot of those runs are for naught and because there’s often not a lot of help. It demands fitness and character.
“This is a boy who has incredible ambition, a great commitment and clearly only has Schalke on his mind," Gross said of Hoppe shortly after taking over. "He wants to do everything he can to get us out of this situation, really an exemplary professional. Although he is still young, he doesn't shy away from doing a huge amount of work."
In a time of crisis, Schalke could live with Hoppe’s lack of experience and professional refinement. The club was impressed with his work rate and level of fitness and commitment, Knäbel said, and at its lowest point, it still could rely on what it had always done well—mining talent, polishing it and preparing it to flourish with the first team.
Hoppe made his Bundesliga debut in the No. 43 jersey on Nov. 28 as Schalke lost, 4–1, to Borussia Mönchengladbach. He was on the bench for the next four matches (appearing in three) and then started again at Hertha Berlin on Jan. 2. That 3–0 defeat extended Schalke’s embarrassing Bundesliga winless streak to 30 games (0-20-10), dating back to the point when the wheels started to fall off toward the end of the 2019–20 campaign. The record, set in the mid-1960s, was 31, and it was held by a small club called Tasmania Berlin that now plays in Germany’s fifth tier. TSG Hoffenheim would visit the Veltins-Arena on Jan. 9. Ignominy awaited.
“The biggest pressure that I ever had in my 30-year career is to be relegated, to have the knockout match for playing for relegation. There you play also for everybody who’s working in the club. This is the biggest negative pressure that you have. For sure there is a lot of pressure to play the final of a World Cup. But what can you lose? You can only win,” Knäbel explains.
“But I never felt a pressure in the middle of the season like this day [against Hoffenheim],” he continues. “The word that I have in my head is ‘shame.’ It would have been the biggest shame [to match the record]. It made it a match where everybody was looking, and you could see it was really a lot of pressure.”
Somehow, Hoppe avoided the worst of that pressure. He’d been informed, certainly, but the Bundesliga was new to him. German football was new to him. He hadn’t lived through that history. Had the club’s original plan been followed, he’d still be down with the reserves. Expectations remained modest. He was a Hail Mary. It was the winless streak that opened the door and so in a way, the Hoffenheim game was like a World Cup final. Hoppe could only win.
“I think the pressure in our youth team was huge for Matthew, because we expected more from him. But now being in the first team, nobody’s expecting something from Matthew because everybody knows he’s from the second team,” Asamoah says. “Now he doesn’t have any pressure on him. He’s just doing what he loves, and he’s not putting any pressure on himself. He just goes out on the pitch and does his best.”
Informed of Asamoah’s assessment, Hoppe said it rang true.
“I think that does play a major role in it. When you’re given this opportunity, nobody expects anything out of me and I just do whatever I want to try to impress the fans and the coaches,” he says. “I think when I got the chance, my head was free and, not only that, I was able to just put all my focus and all my energy into training and into the games. And that was able to translate into goals.”
They came quickly, before Hoppe or anyone else could really take a breath and assess the magnitude of what was happening. Schalke and Hoffenheim were scoreless in the 42nd minute when Moroccan midfielder Amine Harit, one of the players who’d been suspended in November, slipped a through ball to Hoppe in the left channel. The finish was exquisite—a first-time, left-footed chip over Hoffenheim goalkeeper Oliver Baumann that required immense composure and confidence.
Hoppe had ignited. In the 57th minute, Harit and Hoppe connected again, this time on a pass that split Hoffenheim’s center backs. Hoppe timed his curling run perfectly, accelerated and rounded Baumann with ease. Schalke led by two. The best of the lot came six minutes later as Harit, again, found Hoppe, again, running smartly behind the Hoffenheim defense. Hoppe beat Baumann with the outside of his right foot as he raced by, then slid on his knees in celebration while flashing the ‘hang loose’ sign. The Californian had become the coal miners’ hero.
The match ended, 4–0, the streak was snapped and Hoppe couldn’t suppress his smile as he conducted a short postgame interview. The Schalke staff played “California Dreamin’” over the stadium speakers.
“I don’t know how to feel,” Hoppe said. “I’m excited. I am happy that the team got the win and that I was able to contribute to it.”
Hoppe became the third U.S. player to score a hat trick in one of Europe’s big five leagues, following Clint Dempsey (Fulham) and Christian Pulisic (Chelsea). He was the youngest Schalke player to accomplish the feat in Bundesliga play and the third-youngest player ever to notch a hat trick in the top divisions in Germany, England, France, Italy or Spain, according to Diario AS.
Hoppe took his uniform home, along with a match ball signed by his teammates. He received congratulatory messages from Berhalter and U.S. compatriots around Europe. In Turin, where he now plays for reigning Italian champ Juventus, McKennie uploaded a video showing him celebrating boisterously in his living room.
“That was the day of Matthew Hoppe when he saved our asses, or however you can explain it,” Knäbel says. "He avoided this shame for the whole club.”
Hoppe’s momentum continued through the next two games. At Eintracht Frankfurt on Jan. 17, he outran a defender to a looping ball and, from an acute angle, hammered a shot through the goalie’s legs. Three days later against Köln, he beat the goalkeeper to a loose ball in the penalty area and finished with his right foot.
Both goals leveled the score. Schalke lost both matches.
In under two weeks, Hoppe had surged to an unforeseen and startling level of renown. He was on the cover of kicker, Germany’s leading sports magazine, and was named the Bundesliga’s rookie of the month. Media requests were flooding a last-place club. Two weeks ago, Schalke rewarded him with that first pro contract.
“I’m living my dream. It’s actually happening,” Hoppe says.
But dreams don’t last, and Hoppe and Schalke have had to wake up to some stark reality. After he scored five goals in three games, opponents knew what was coming. Hoppe’s quick, alert and decisive play had been scouted and planned for. He’s continued to start but now hasn’t found the net in the past five matches. Since the Hoffenheim game, Schalke is 0-4-2 in league play, and it was eliminated from the DFB-Pokal by VfL Wolfsburg. Heading into Saturday’s Revierderby, Schalke is 1-14-6 and nine points out of 16th place and a berth in the season-ending relegation playoff. It needs a miracle. It may be unfair to the 19-year-old, but it’s tough to imagine how that miracle might happen if Hoppe doesn’t find another groove.
“Everybody expects more from Matthew, because we now know he can score goals, but I think we still know he’s a young player,” Asamoah says. “He needs his time. We don’t want to put pressure on him. But we now know we’ve found a striker, a young guy, who maybe in the next years can help Schalke 04 to be what we were. We don’t put pressure on him, but we keep hoping he keeps doing what he did.”
Knäbel adds, “Now the race has started, because you know the analysis departments of the other clubs, they are really big and they know everything about you. You are calculated. You are analyzed. And then you have to develop your game.”
In a way, that will be the real test—to perform when everyone is watching. Hoppe took the world, and his own club, by surprise. But Dortmund and relegation loom, and Schalke has signed veteran center forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a Dutchman who played for the club during the Champions League years, to mentor and compete with Hoppe.
"It’s not a fluke that he scored five goals recently,” Huntelaar told the club’s website. “He makes good runs. His mentality is great. He has a wonderful future ahead of him if he keeps it up.”
If he keeps it up.
That’s the measuring stick at the highest level. That’s the demand. And it’s what Berhalter is looking for as he plans for a busy 2021, when the U.S. will have Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying matches on the docket.
“We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves,” the U.S. manager said last month. “I think that a player establishes himself by continuing to perform at this level that he is at. So it’s great to see him reach these heights, and now he needs to maintain it. And if he does that, I’m sure he’ll get an opportunity with the national team.”
Hoppe said his approach won’t change. His rise was fueled by focus, fitness and humility. He paid attention to what he wanted and not what he didn’t have. With the attention, the exposure and the contract come expectations. Under the shadow of relegation comes pressure. For Hoppe, the changes must remain external.
“I notice it but I try not to think about it too much. I just try to stay under it,” he says. “That’s what everyone says: Keep everything the same and don’t do anything different. Don’t try and change anything too much.
“There’s obviously that pressure there,” he adds. “But you can’t think about it. You just have to focus on what you have to do and that’s all you can do. If you start thinking too much and overthinking and your head’s not clear, you can’t do what you need to do. That happens sometimes in football. You just have to do your best to keep moving forward and not thinking about it.”
In the end, this is what Hoppe wanted. His appetite whet on those tours with Irvine Strikers and the Barcelona academy, he dreamed of playing in Europe—with all the trappings, both positive and pressure-packed. He said he enjoys it when someone recognizes him at the grocery store, and he can’t wait until fans return and he can experience the legendary atmosphere surrounding Schalke’s games. The prospect of relegation is part of the package.
“Even though it’s difficult and hard at times, it’s what every player kind of dreams of, you know? To be able to get an opportunity like I had and be able to just play,” Hoppe says.
No matter how the season turns out, Hoppe likely will have provided its highlight. He’s not a Schalke legend. That comes with sustained excellence over time. But the club’s most dedicated fans will never forget him. He was the one who saved their asses, who with a bolt from the blue rescued them from suffering an historic indignity. Asamoah and Knäbel both struggled to come up with a coherent explanation for how such a modest player, who’d scored once for the reserves, delivered so spectacularly at that moment.
Knäbel decided he was O.K. with that ambiguity. Even during this season of suffering, Hoppe’s outburst was something to savor.
"Is it not the thing that makes this game so lovely and so interesting?” Knäbel asks. “It’s not about mathematics. It’s about emotions. We tried to explain it, but leave it like it is. Leave the player, leave the game, its little secrets. We want to analyze everything, to explain everything and how it works. But it works. I'm so happy for him. All members of the academy are so happy for him. We should leave it like this and not over-explain everything.”