Photo: Earl Gardner
Antoine Hoppenot has been electric off the bench for the Philadelphia Union. Against Toronto, he put the game away by zipping behind the defense and burying an early shot into the far side netting. Hoppenot spoke to The Philly Soccer Page about how he has adjusted his game to since college, how he plays to earn the confidence of his teammates, and about going all out for thirty minutes a game.
Last couple games, how have you felt out there? What do you think you bring on the field?
When coach Hack tells me to go in, he might think the game is in a lull and he wants me to go and take back control and take back the tempo.
When you first met Hackworth did you say to him, “This is the type of player I am”? Because it seems like you guys are always on the same page with what you should be doing.
Not really, it seems like at practice, the stuff I was able to do is make those runs and create opportunities. And it seemed like it would work in games. Obviously, the way that I play those 30 minutes, I can’t do that for a full 90. It’s a lot of running and it’s impossible to keep that pace up. So just to be able to be a guy that [Hackworth] feels comfortable putting in to try and change the way the game is going or if we are winning like against Kansas City to just try to end the game.
Have you changed the way you play in the pros compared to how you played in college?
Yeah, it depends on the game. Against KC, coach Hack told me to stay high and stay between their center backs. In the first half he saw that they were letting the ball go between them and he said just make sure to make that run. From college to MLS… I play a lot deeper in MLS because it creates a lot more space for the center mids to get the ball and find me.
What kind of game did you play in college?
In college I was on the ball a lot more. I would check back and try to get the ball and try to make things happen with my dribbling mostly. That was the game plan mostly, to find me and then people would try to play off me. But there’s a big difference now because I don’t try to get on the ball as much. I try to make things happen with my runs more than on the ball.
Did you know it would be that way coming in or did you show up and try to dribble around a few people in practice and have someone say, “Hey Junior, that won’t work here.”
The first two weeks of practice you realize pretty quickly that it doesn’t work as well. You start dribbling and you’re getting knocked to the ground… you just try to figure it out. Trial and error. And obviously the coaches came up to me and some of the players came up to me and said, “Yeah, you’re gonna have to change your game a little bit.”
Who on the team has helped you a lot? Is there anyone you’ve sought out for advice?
Most of the guys, you can just go up to them. One of the guys that has been a big help to me is Sheanon Williams. In the past few weeks, especially, he’s a guy that’s been very supportive and has helped me try to make the best of it. He’s given me a lot of advice. Surprising, in that he’s a defender, but he’s been great just helping me to keep my head down and help out the team.
When you were drafted, was your attitude coming in that you had to come out and prove yourself? Were you just looking for a place to fit in?
For me, I came in without a contract so at first it’s just proving yourself worthy to have a contract and that you’re good enough to play in this league and to help out the team, whether it’s in practice or a game. Just show the guys, show the team, show the coaches that I deserve to be here. That was how I went into it. Since then, it’s been six months that we’ve been together and it’s just proving to the players that I belong and to gain their confidence so they want me to be on the field with them.
So what are you thinking going forward? You seem pretty comfortable in your current role. Is there anything you want to work on in the near future to develop your role?
Fitness, a little bit. I can do it for the amount of time I can do it now, but if I can do it longer, that’d be better. The goal at the end of the day is to be able to play 90 minutes. But for now I’m happy with where I’m at. It’s great that I’m able to go into the game and have the guys be confident that I’ll be able to go in there and do well.
Tactically, do you feel like you have a good sense of what you should be doing so you can think on the fly?
When I get on the field, Hack usually puts me on there and I’m the highest guy so everybody else is telling me where to go. I hear a lot from Mike Farfan because he usually plays right behind me. So he’s usually a guy that, defensively, he lets me know where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do, who I’m supposed to pressure. So a lot from him. He talks to me during the game, trying to make sure I’m in the right spot.
So what has this experience been like for you so far? Has anything about MLS surprised you?
I mean, it’s fantastic. What I’ve been surprised with mostly is how great the team is. The locker room, and how everyone is into every practice but off the field they’re all incredible guys. You never know what to expect when you go from college. In college you live together and there is that bond, so going to a professional team you never know what to expect. But the guys are incredible and the team is really close. That’s surprised me in a good way.
How are the tactics in MLS different from what you played in and played against in college?
It’s much faster, much more physical than the college game, for sure. You do everything a little faster. In college you have time to think about what’s happening but at this level it’s just like, reactions. And your body just knows what it has to do. You’re not really thinking about what you want to do, you’re just reacting. In college you have more time to think about what you want to do.
So at this point do you feel comfortable going out there and using your whole repertoire, or are you still trying to keep it simple?
It depends where I am on the field. In the middle of the field, I try to find someone quickly. I don’t try to do anything dangerous which I would have done in college if I got the ball. I would have tried to beat a few guys. But at this level you just can’t do that, so if I do find myself with the ball I try to find Mike [Farfan], who is usually the closest to me and then make a run forward and open up space. But if I’m further up the field and I get the ball and I can isolate one or two of their guys, I wouldn’t be afraid to take them on and try to create something.
You said the guys on the team have been great, what about guys on other teams? Has anyone tried to let you know this is their territory? Have they tried to put you in your place?
No, I haven’t really seen any of that. There’s not much interaction going on. I don’t think they see it as any other player. They just try not to get scored on.