CHESTER, Pa. – On Wednesday night, Antoine Hoppenot showed one reason why the Philadelphia Union are so high on him, as he pounced on a missed penalty kick to beat Jimmy Nielsen and end the Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper’s bid for the MLS shutout record.
But as much as the Union love their rookie striker, that’s how much it sometimes seems other teams don’t like him.
So far this season, Hoppenot has been fouled about once every 33 minutes, oftentimes drawing cards or penalty kicks. And he’s drawn the ire of such players as Montreal’s Nelson Rivas (who was ejected after head-butting Hoppenot), D.C. United’s Emiliano Dudar (who was shown a straight red for a studs-up tackle on the Union rookie) and, most recently, New England’s Benny Feilhaber (who was shown a pair of yellow cards – and the door – because of multiple confrontations with him).
“I guess other players from other teams don’t like me that much,” Hoppenot admitted. “I come in and they’re already pretty tired and I think they don’t really want to chase me around. So the easier option is to put me on the ground.”
Indeed, it’s been the combination of Hoppenot’s speed and feistiness that has made him such an effective “super sub,” as Union manager John Hackworth often calls him. It's also caused matchup problems for defenses – which, in turn, has led to some annoyed and frustrated opponents.
“First of all, he’s very difficult to play against,” Hackworth said. “We know that watching him every day in training because he’s the same way in training. The second thing is he’s probably one of the most agile soccer players in the league. He’s got a low center of gravity and he’s able to jump in and out of spots where other players haven’t anticipated or caught up to yet.”
Before Hackworth took over as manager in mid-June, Hoppenot had played just 26 total minutes through the club’s first 11 games. But with Hackworth using him mostly as his main weapon off the bench, the 2012 supplemental draft pick out of Princeton has emerged as one of the league’s most promising rookies, having logged four goals in 772 minutes, including two against Sporting Kansas City.
He also shined in the US Open Cup, scoring the overtime game-winner against D.C. United in the fourth round before drawing a penalty kick against the Harrisburg City Islanders in the quarterfinals.
“From the first minute of the preseason until now, whether in training or games, he’s a handful at all times,” Hackworth said. “When a player has that ability, it’s awful hard for players to defend.”
It’s something the Union certainly like – even if other teams do not.
“I come in and get them frustrated,” Hoppenot said. “If I can draw a penalty, a few yellow cards of maybe even a red card, it helps our team and really affects the way they’re going to play.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.