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American soccer fans are a passionate bunch. At times, that passion borders on obsession, with those that follow the U.S. men's national teamgenerally aware of every detail, every young talent that could even, just maybe, represent America on the international stage.
After making his Bundesliga debut in November, Hoppe's big moment came on January 9. On that day, with Schalke in the midst of a 30-game winless streak, the 19-year-old striker fired his first career goal against Hoffenheim and then added two more for good measure. In the process, he became the first American to ever score a Bundesliga hat-trick.
And it's only been upwards from there. Headded a goal in each of his two games after, scoring first in a 3-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt before adding another in a 2-1 defeat byCologne. That brought Hoppe's record to five goals in his first three games, which already gives him the third-best goal tally for an American across an entire Bundesliga season.
Such is the rise of Hoppe, a player that ascended from obscurity to star in just a matter of months. Indeed, when the season began, he was a Schalke youth player. Internationally, meanwhile, he'd never evenrepresented the U.S. at under-age level and had never been on the books of anyMLS academy team.
The teenager had flown under the radar, but it's safe to say he's in the limelight now.
"It's hard to believe," Hoppe told reporters. "After I scored those goals, it was hard to process, to realize that it was real and that it happened. But I think once I got those goals, my confidence went up and I was able to feel a lot more comfortable in the game and show what I'm capable of."
He added: "Everything changed so fast, probably within the span of a month and a half or two months. And there havebeensome moments where I was able to take a step back and look at all that's happened andit is crazy. It's like mydream is coming true."
On the surface, it's easy to see why so many were unable to spot Hoppebefore his breakthrough. He was never truly in the national conversation.
He was, however, a star for Barcelona's U.S. residency in Arizona in the now-defunctU.S. Soccer Development Academy league, where he played alongside current LA Galaxy and USMNT defender Julian Araujo.
Still, Hopperemained largely out of the public eye, even as he thrived in the USDA. He scored 53 goals across his two seasons with the team, includingfive hat-tricks.
"It didn't really bother me that much," Hoppe said when asked how he felt about never earning that U.S. call-up."They're obviously good players and even though it was frustrating at times, I just had to keep working hard and keep trying to prove that I belonged there and that I couldplay with the best players in the U.S., and the best players in the world."
Playing for Barca's American satellite academy did have its benefits, though,as Hoppe was able to travel to Spain for a small taste of what life was like at the top level, even visiting La Masia at one point to train alongside Barcelona wonderkid Ansu Fati.
But, while Fati was always destined for the top, Hoppe's path was different. The teenager was originally committed to play for San Diego State University, despite interest from teams both at home and abroad. He participated in several European trials, butit was Schalke that convinced him to head to Germany to begin his professional career.
They'll be glad they did, as Hoppe has been the lone bright spot in what has been a historically bad period for one of Germany's giants. The side from Gelsenkirchencurrently sits dead last in the Bundesliga with just eight points from 20 games. They'll need a miracle to avoid relegation.
And, suddenly, a teenage American might be it. But, even if he isn't Schalke's saviorin the here and now,he iscommitted to the future.
Recently, the club announced that Hoppe had signedhis first professional contract to keep him with Schalke until 2023. That contract came amid uncertainty around the youngster's future, with his previous dealset to expire in the summer.
"I think that to sign for Schalke was the best thing for me. I have a lot of love for this club," he said. "They gave me the opportunity to be able to come to Germany in the first place and they believed in me, and they gave me the opportunity to make my Bundesliga debut. They gave me an opportunity just to show that I can play in Europe.
"Obviously, I love this club and I think it was the right decision for me. I think that it's also important for me to be able to play, especially as a young player."
Hoppe now faces bigger challenges at Schalke. The club recently brought back the legendary Klaas-Jan Huntelaar with hopes that the Dutch striker could provide a link to the club's past success.
Hoppe says he's already picked Huntelaar's brains plenty, having taken notice of the veteran's work ethic. Huntelaar, Hoppe says, comes into the locker room with pages and pages of notes after every game and has already mentored the young American on what he can be doing better.
Hoppe's growth as a No.9 will be nearly as vital to the USMNT as it is to Schalke. The U.S., as it stands, has an open competition for that starting striker spot. Fellow Bundesliga youngster Josh Sargent is in the mix, as are MLS veterans Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes and European-based duo Sebastian Soto and Nicholas Gioacchini.
But so, too, is Hoppe, who could be in line for his first USMNT call-up this March. The teenager says he has been in contact with USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter in recent weeks and is looking forward to the chance to represent the USMNT at some point or another
"It's obviously a goal of mine to be the striker for the U.S.national team and that's something I'm working hard for," he said. "It'd been an honor to be able to do that, to be able to represent my country and to be able to start for them. I'm doing everything I can over here on my part to work on until I deserve it."
Berhalter, for his part, is keeping a close eye on the forward, although he has challenged Hoppe to take things a step further now that he's truly a member of the first team at Schalke.
"For him, I think it's just the beginning," the USMNT boss told ESPN. "Now, it's about just continuing to perform. It's not about one performance, it's about the next performance and the next performance and the next performance.
"And I think he's got a good mindset and he's ready to do that. And most importantly, help the team. They're in a tough spot and know they need to get out of the relegation zone."
Saying Schalke are in a "tough spot" is an understatement. The club is set to face Union Berlin this weekend before looking ahead to what is traditionally one of the Bundesliga's biggest matches the week after: theRevierderby against Dortmund.
As things stand, Schalke sit nine points from safety. The club has not been in the 2. Bundesliga since 1991 and has been relegated only once since 1984.
"The biggest goal is to help Schalke stay in the first division of the Bundesliga," Hoppe said. "That's what my focus is right now but I want to keep scoring goals, keep helping the team any way I can."
Schalke's fate may be in Hoppe's hands, a fact that would have seemed impossible at the start of the season. Much has changed for the player and the club and, in the coming months, the only thing that seems certain is that more change will come.
He's already noticed it: the media calls, the attention, the pressure. But Hoppe also says he's embracing all that comes with it, even as those challenges get tougher and tougher.
"I think that before people didn't really know who I was, but now I hear that the defender is always saying my name or my number to other defenders," he said. "They're always speaking about me to make sure that they have an eye on me so it's been harder to get the opponents by surprise.
"But I think that, if I play my game, there's always going to be an opportunity, there's always going to be space created, either for me or for others and I think that it's just up to defenders to decide what they want to sacrifice.
"I don't think it has that much of an impact but I have been able to notice that they may be keeping more of an eye on me and trying to watch me and giving me some more respect, I guess."