Matthew Hoppe got up, put his head on a skewed cross, and by the time his feet hit the ground, the United States had a 1-0 lead over Jamaica in the Gold Cup quarter-finals. The decisive goal in the 83rd minute was Hoobe’s last appearance in the match, capping his first international achievement.
At this time last year, Hoppe was a bit of a player outside of USMNT’s most ardent supporter of knowing. And now, he appears to be a player, 20 years old, poised for minutes in the World Cup qualifiers.
Hoppe’s rise is exactly the kind of opportunity this Gold Cup, without the stars based in Europe, is designed to do: providing opportunities for players outside of Gregg Berhalter’s well-established core to play their way into the roles in the fall.
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Before making his German debut for Schalke 04 in November, Hoebi had never played for the US youth team and despite flashes of success – he became the first American to score a hat-trick in the Bundesliga on January 9 – he remained a difficult player to rate.
After offloading Weston McKinney to Juventus, where he quickly thrived, Schalke 04 spent the 2020-21 season in disarray, finishing the season with just 15 points. Hoppe scored six goals during the relegation run, but his team’s lack of any sense of cohesion was limited individually.
Against Jamaica, physical and confident on the ball, he was easily the most energetic American striker, and when it came time for Berhalter to make attacking strikes around the 60th minute, it was clear that Hopi needed to stay on the field.
“I think the way he was able to get chances, he had clear looks on goal and that’s because of his movement in the penalty area,” Berhalter said after the match. “And he was grinding. When a guy puts in that kind of effort and he stops there and keeps going, we want to stay with him because we thought he was doing a good job and because his target was dangerous.”
“It was great to see him score.”
Berhalter’s attack divers already made – Gyasi Zardes and Christian Roldan in place of Daryl Dick and Paul Areola – were also making an impact. It was a Roldan cross that Hoppe put his head on, and took a slight deviation from Zardes before Hoppe redirected. Before submarines, neither Dick nor Areola, who both wore the captain’s armband, posed much of a threat.
The win constitutes an interesting semi-final match on Thursday against Qatar – the Asian champions and host of the 2022 World Cup. The Qataris were invited by CONCACAF to take part in the tournament as a guest nation, scoring 12 goals in four matches and going ahead with a 3-2 victory over El Salvador on Saturday.
These impressive goal-scoring numbers provide the US defense a tough test, which has been flawless in four games. There were occasional glitches, of course, but the USMNT had yet to allow a goal from open play, with New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner and a young defensive line up to the task.
“We think they are a strong team, a fun team to watch, a very dangerous attacking team on the counterattack, some very skilled players and this match will really help us prepare,” Berhalter said.
“We talked about using this tournament to prepare the players and playing against Qatar will do that. It’s an opponent we’re not used to and it’s going to be a great match.”
Without Walker Zimmerman, who was not present through injury, Berhalter returned to a four-man defense line, taking on Miles Robinson and James Sands in midfield against Jamaica.
“I thought Miles and James did an excellent job,” Berhalter said. “Controlling the reinforcements and the fight as well. For the young players, the inexperienced players in the knockout rounds, I thought they had an excellent game.”
The centre-back partnership is a free partnership. Robinson is more adept at putting out fires and defending in transition, while Sands has shown throughout the tournament that his incremental passes are a huge asset from his position. Of the two, Sands will likely have done more to raise his profile within the pool during the tournament, but it was Robinson who came up with key matches against Jamaica and is likely to be called up in similar situations against Qatar.