Can I Start Freaking Out About Matthew Hoppe Now?

Over the weekend, a little-known American teenager scored a hat trick in the Bundesliga. What does it mean for the rest of his career?

We’re back with another donation request this week. Kevin N. donated toward COVID-19 relief and asked me to write a piece about the USMNT’s striker depth. And whaddayaknow, there’s suddenly a new name, from out of nowhere, that might soon be sitting atop the chart. So, we’re gonna focus on him.

In 2019, the San Diego State Aztecs men’s soccer team went 4-12-2. They beat the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Brown, Belmont, and Cal. They lost to, among others, Detroit Mercy, Oregon State (twice), and Marshall. This is the collegiate soccer program that initially signed Matthew Hoppe.

That is, until he was offered a trial by and ultimately signed with Schalke last summer. Weird, but OK. Historically, Schalke are one of the biggest clubs in the world, but after about a decade of letting their best young players leave on free transfers, the quality of the team quickly decayed down below Bundesliga level. Last season, they finished 12th with a minus-20 goal differential. And prior to this weekend, they were winless in the current campaign, sporting a minus-31 goal differential from just 14 matches. Schalke were, pretty clearly, the worst team in Europe’s Big Five leagues.

This made a little more sense: Hoppe had no youth national team experience and committed to an unspectacular, mediocre Division One soccer program. These players -- [points both thumbs at self]] -- typically don’t join Bundesliga clubs, but at least this was the worst-run Bundesliga club. What happened over the next year and half made some more sense, too: Hoppe scored just two goals for Schalke’s u19 team and just one for Schalke II, the club’s reserve. He made a couple Bundesliga appearances earlier this season, but that, again, said more about the current state of the club rather than Hoppe’s promise. In 191 minutes, the kid registered more yellow cards than shots on target, and Schalke were relying on him to save them from relegation. At best, the odds of him becoming a relevant contributor to the men’s national team one day were equal to the opposite outcome: Hoppe fades away from professional relevance and we never hear from again.

Well, not anymore! On Saturday, Schalke won their first game of the Bundesliga season with -- deep breath, DEEP BREATH -- a hat trick from Matthew Hoppe. They’re no longer in last place in Germany and Hoppe suddenly seems like ... a potential starter for the USMNT at the 2022 World Cup (if they, you know, qualify this time).

That might seem like a wild overreaction, but listen man, the cupboard is bare and if you become the third American to notch three in one game in a top European league -- along with Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey, two of the best American players ever -- you immediately get to be a part of the conversation.

Hoppe stands alone in one sense: he’s the first player ever, in the history of the sport across the world, to decommit from a 4-12-2 collegiate soccer program and rip off a hat trick in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues within two years. There’s no comparison there, of course, and there’s almost no sample to work from -- dude has taken 10 total shots as a pro -- but let’s see how Hoppe’s breakout performance on Saturday compares to some of the players who are suddenly his peers.

Goals

For the Big Five leagues, the Stats Perform database goes back to the 2008 season. Since then, there have been 11 non-penalty hat tricks scored by a player younger than 20 years old. Four players scored four:

-Santi Mina for Celta Vigo in 2015
-Domenico Berardi for Sassuolo in 2014
-Mauro Icardi for Sampdoria in 2013
-Kylian Mbappe for PSG in 2018

And these are the other six pathetic never-have-beens who, in addition to Hoppe, could only score three:

-Kylian Mbappe for Monaco in 2017
-Antonio Sanabria for Sporting Gijon in 2015
-Antonio Sanabria for Sporting Gijon  in 2016 (these two games were within 35 days of each other)
-Ousmane Dembele for Rennes in 2016
-Francesco Grandolfo for Bari in 2011
-Erling Haaland for Borussia Dortmund in 2020

Not bad company, huh? Out of the nine players, four of them became stars to varying degrees. Three of them -- Mina, Berardi, and Sanabria -- have been somewhere around “average Big Five players”, and only one, Grandolfo, could realistically be labeled a “dissapointment.” After his hat trick, he never scored another Serie A goal.

Shots

There have been 571,735 minutes played by 19 year olds or younger across the Big Five leagues since 2008. That’s more than a year’s worth of just continuous soccer matches being played at every second of every day. And let’s just say that we were able to actually safely undertake this bizarre, sadistic, and extremely specific experiment: a rotating cast of people playing soccer ALL THE TIME for 365 days in a row. If we did, we’d probably see a lot of weird shit -- like, say, a random player scoring with three consecutive shots.

This, however, was not that. Hoppe scored with half of his attempts on Saturday, which means two things: 1) he scored at an unsustainable-beyond-last-weekend rate, and 2) he took a ton of shots. Among players qualified players on FBRef, Lionel Messi leads Europe’s Big Five leagues in shots per 90 minutes with 5.92. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the only other player north of five (5.22). Hoppe attempted six shots. For at least one day, he surpassed both Zlatan and Messi -- and everyone else.

Expected Goals

Yeah, OK dude. You’ve been talking about goals and then you started talking about shots. Look, even I was briefly tantalized with this kid’s “finishing skills.” Those two chips? Damn, we sure that isn’t Raul out there? And what about that touch past the keeper? Had to wipe my eyes a couple times and blink my way back into reality to realize that I wasn’t looking at Luis Suarez highlights. 

But let’s get this straight. I’ve been reading this newsletter for long enough to know that all that fancy stuff is just icing on the cake. Shots, sure, but it’s really about getting good shots, you always tell us. The most important skill and the thing that predicts the largest chunk -- the majority chunk -- of future goal-scoring and also explains past-goal scoring is an ability to consistently get on the end of a healthy number of attempts from inside the penalty area. Did the kid do that?

Why yes, yes he did. Here’s his shot map from Saturday, per Stats Perform. Green are goals; and the bigger the circle, the higher the xG value.

All six shots came from inside the box. Opta defined the three goals as “big chances”. Three of the shots came with his right foot, two with his left, and one with his head. All in all, it added up to 1.67 non-penalty expected goals -- the 12th-most for a player under the age of 20 since 2008. Here’s who’s ahead of him:

1) Mauro Icardi: 2.90 for Sampdoria in 2013
2) Anthony Martial: 2.45 for Monaco in 2015
3) Raheem Sterling: 2.41 for Liverpool in 2014
4) Kylian Mbappe: 2.35 for PSG in 2018
5) Erling Haaland: 2.20 for Dortmund in 2020
6) Antonio Sanabria: 2.09 for Sporting Gijon in 2015
7) Santi Mina: 2.05 for Celta Vigo in 2015
8) Gabriel Jesus 2.02 for Manchester City in 2017
9) Antonio Sanabria: 2.01 for Sporting Gijon in 2016
10) Moise Kean: 1.93 for Hellas Verona in 2017
11) Ibrahima M'baye: 1.70 for Livorno in 2014

If we strip out M’baye -- who only took two shots, one of which was an empty-net rebound after a shot hit the crossbar -- then we’ve got a bunch of stars and bing-money transfers, plus Sanabria and Mina, who have had their ups and downs but are each averaging at least a third of a goal per match -- 0.33 per 90 or better -- across their careers in Big Five leagues. Oh, and just for reference, these are the five names after Hoppe on the xG list: Jadon Sancho, Mbappe, Paulo Dybala, Mario Gotze, and Kean.

Will Matthew Hoppe, the guy who most of you probably hadn’t heard of until this past weekend or perhaps even today, be as good as those players? Probably not -- almost no one is as good as these guys, really weird stuff can happen in a single game, the lack of pedigree likely means something, and he also needs to significantly develop the other parts of his game. (He completed seven passes on Saturday.) But that doesn’t mean that he definitely won’t or can’t become a top-tier European player, either. Because, well, when players of Hoppe’s age do what Hoppe did on Saturday, they tend to become stars. That possibility, amazingly, is at least on the table now -- even though, just a week ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense.