American forward Matthew Hoppe is bright light for Schalke

File---File picture taken Jan.24, 2021 shows Schalke's Matthew Hoppe eying the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Schalke 04 and Bayern Munich in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
File---File picture taken Jan.24, 2021 shows Schalke's Matthew Hoppe eying the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Schalke 04 and Bayern Munich in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BERLIN – Matthew Hoppe looks like he's just getting started.

The 19-year-old American forward scored a hat trick in his third start for Schalke and followed up by scoring in each of his next two games.

With those five goals, Hoppe is already Schalke’s leading scorer this season. He is arguably the team’s greatest hope of avoiding relegation after its woeful season so far. Schalke is in last place in the Bundesliga with only one win from 20 matches.

Nine points from safety with 14 games to play, Schalke needs a win at Union Berlin on Saturday to rekindle any hope of survival.

“The biggest goal is to try and help Schalke stay in the Bundesliga. That’s my biggest focus right now," Hoppe said on a conference call this week. "I want to keep scoring goals, helping the team in any way I can.”

The 6-foot-3-inch striker has been patiently concentrating on his own game, constantly looking for ways to improve, confident that his own hard work will eventually pay off for the team.

“I knew that if an opportunity came by, I’d ready for it. I think that I just did the little things right,” said Hoppe, who was promoted to the first team in November.

Hoppe, who has not yet played for any U.S. youth national team, has taken an unusual route to the Bundesliga. The striker joined Schalke’s under-19 team from the Barcelona-affiliated academy in Arizona in 2019 after a stint at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in Irvine, California.

He scored three goals in 17 league games for Schalke’s under-19 team in his first season in Germany, then one in 16 appearances for the reserve team — all but one as a late substitute.

“I scored a goal and since then they called me up to training and I played well,” Hoppe said.

The player was given his chance to impress following an injury to Portuguese forward Gonçalo Paciência. He made his Bundesliga debut against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Nov. 28.

Hoppe has since made 10 appearances for the first team.

“My dream ever since I was young was to be a top player in Europe. When I was playing in the Barcelona academy it gave me the opportunity to go to Spain. I was also able to go to La Masia. That gave me some experience,” Hoppe said of his visit to the Spanish giant’s famed youth academy.

His agent arranged trials at other clubs and Hoppe impressed at Schalke.

“They were able to offer me a spot on the team and I took it immediately,” he said.

Hoppe became the third American to score in three consecutive German league games after Eric Wynalda with Saarbrücken in 1992 and Clint Mathis with Hannover in 2004. His hat trick in the 4-0 win over Hoffenheim on Jan. 9 saved Schalke from the ignominy of matching Tasmania Berlin’s league record of 31 straight games without a win.

“After I scored those goals, it was hard to believe at first," Hoppe said. "But I think once I got those, my confidence went up and I was able to feel a lot more comfortable in my game, and show what I’m capable of.”

The American should benefit from Schalke’s signing of veteran Dutch forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Huntelaar previously played for Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan before scoring 126 goals in 239 Bundesliga games during his previous spell at Schalke, but the 37-year-old Dutchman has been plagued by injury on his return. He has only managed a substitute appearance against Werder Bremen.

Still, it hasn’t stopped Huntelaar from having an impact on the team — and on Hoppe, in particular.

“He’s been to a few practices. He would speak to me and tell me some small things and some big things I can work on. I think it’s important for me. It’s cool to have a player like him to ask questions and try and learn and get better from,” Hoppe said.

“Another thing I’ve noticed is that we’d have a game, and the next day he would turn up with five or six pages of notes. He’d try and talk to the players and say what they should be doing or what the team should be doing better.”

Huntelaar remains injured for the visit to Union on Saturday, but Hoppe is ready to fill in.

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Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP