Last year, Antoine Hoppenot enjoyed heading down the road from Princeton to PPL Park in Chester, Pa. to root for the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer (MLS).
So when the former Princeton Day School and Princeton University soccer standout was drafted by the Union this past February, he was thrilled.
“I have been to a lot of Union games as a fan,” said Hoppenot, who signed with the club on February 21. “It was perfect for me. I was close to home and my parents could see me play.”
This summer, Hoppenot is drawing the cheers of the Union supporters, utilizing his elusiveness and ball skills to emerge as an up-and-coming star for the squad.
Hoppenot rode the bench for nine of the team’s first 10 games, getting just one minute of time against Columbus on April 14.
On May 26, Hoppenot saw 25 minutes of action in a 1-0 loss to Toronto. Less than a month later, Hoppenot scored his first career goal as the Union defeated Sporting Kansas City 4-0.
Over the last several weeks, the 5’9, 155-pound forward Hoppenot has become a fan favorite, energizing the Union with his trademark runs to the goal.
When Hoppenot started practicing with the team, he initially wasn’t sure if he could get up to speed to contribute this season.
“Everything is much faster, the ball is zipping around,” said Hoppenot, who tallied 26 goals and 15 assists in his stellar Princeton career which saw him earn All-Ivy League recognition in each of his four years, including being honored as the Ivy Player of the Year on 2010 as a junior when he helped the Tigers take the league title.
“At first, I was just trying to keep up. For a rookie, it is always a little rough at first. It took me three or four weeks to feel comfortable.”
Hoppenot’s comfort level grew on a preseason trip to Costa Rica in late February which saw him score a goal in a 3-0 win over the Costa Rica U-20 Team.
“The Costa Rica trip was great, it was good to get to know the team,” said Hoppenot, who put his final semester at Princeton on hold in order to play with the Union this spring. “The players started getting confidence in me and my ability to play.”
Despite that promising start, Hoppenot realized that breaking into the Union’s rotation was not going to be an easy task.
“I knew it was going to be difficult to get playing time on such a good team that went to the playoffs last year,” added Hoppenot.
“I just went to practice and worked as hard as I could. You have to hope for one opportunity and make the best of it.”
For Hoppenot, taking advantage of a scoring chance and finding the back of the net against Sporting KC on June 23 made for a memorable night.
“That was the greatest feeling,” asserted Hoppenot. “It is one of the best moments I have ever had in soccer. There were 18,000 fans cheering. It was a big game for us and we had a big 4-0 win.”
A coaching change in June which saw Peter Nowak step down as Union head coach to be replaced by assistant coach John Hackworth has led to Hoppenot getting more minutes on the pitch.
“Coach Hack has a lot of confidence in me; he is willing to put me in spots where he thinks I can help the team,” said Hoppenot.
“It is great to come out to practice every week and know that at the end of the week, you may get rewarded with playing time in a game. It is what you dream of.”
Another dream came true for Hoppenot when he made his first MLS start on July 29 as the Union hosted the New England Revolution and posted a 2-1 victory.
“That was incredible; it was great to be in the first-team picture that they take before the game,” said Hoppenot. “My teammates were kidding me that I finally get to have one of those pictures. It was a big crowd; I was pretty excited.”
Off the field, Hoppenot has developed a tight bond with his teammates.
“It has been exciting; we have a lot of young guys who can relate to each other,” said Hoppenot, who shares an apartment with two of his teammates. “We are in the same time of our lives; we like to joke around a lot.”
As he looks ahead to the rest of his rookie campaign, Hoppenot hopes to keep providing excitement for the Union, who were 7-11-2 in their first 20 games to stand eighth of 10 teams in the MLS’s Eastern Conference.
“I am ready to do a little bit of everything,” said Hoppenot, who had a goal and eight shots in his first 11 MLS regular season games.
“I like coming off the bench and bringing energy to the team. If they need someone to start and play 90 minutes, I am ready to do that. It depends on what we need; that changes from week to week. I would like to score a few more goals this season but I don’t have any number in mind. The really important thing is for us to make the playoffs. We need to get as many wins as possible. If we win and I get some goals, that would be great.”
While Hoppenot, who was born in Paris, France, could end up playing in Europe someday, he doesn’t see himself leaving the Union anytime soon.
“I think I will be in the MLS for the near future; I am very young and I have a lot to learn,” said Hoppenot, 21, who is dealing with a fractured nose after getting head-butted by Montreal’s Nelson Rivas on August 4 in a 2-0 loss.
“I am trying to figure out what being a pro means; it is tough going from a four-month season in college to a 9 and a half months in the pros. I am learning more about stretching, nutrition, and rest. I have a lot to improve on before I am ready to think about playing in Europe.”
In addition, Hoppenot is enjoying the cheers he has been getting from the Union faithful.
“The fans have been fantastic,” said Hoppenot. “They have shown me support every step of the way.”
That is no surprise considering that Hoppenot has gone from being one of them to stepping up on the pitch in a big way for the Union.