Matthew Hoppe rose up, got his head on a deflected cross and, by the time his feet hit the ground, the United States had a 1-0 lead against Jamaica in the Gold Cup quarterfinals. The decisive 83rd-minute goal was Hoppe's final involvement in the game, capping his first breakthrough international performance.
At this time last year, Hoppe was a player few outside of the most ardent supporters of the USMNT were aware of. And now, he looks like a player, at 20 years old, who is poised for minutes at World Cup qualifying.
Hoppe's ascent is precisely the type of opportunity this Gold Cup, without the European-based stars, was designed to do: provide opportunities for players outside of Gregg Berhalter's established core to play their way into roles in the fall.
Prior to making his debut for Schalke in the Bundesliga in November, Hoppe had never featured for a U.S. youth national team; and despite flashes of success -- he became the first American to score a hat trick in the Bundesliga on Jan. 9 -- he remained a tough player to evaluate.
After offloading Weston McKennie to Juventus, where he quickly blossomed, Schalke spent the 2020-21 season in disarray, finishing with just 15 points. Hoppe scored six goals during the relegation parade, but his team's lack of any sense of cohesion was individually limiting.
Against Jamaica, Hoppe was physical, confident on the ball, easily the most vibrant American attacker. And when it came time for Berhalter to make attacking subs at about the 60th minute, it was clear Hoppe needed to remain on the field.
"I think the way he was able to get chances, he had a couple of clear looks at goal and that's due to his movement in the box," Berhalter said after the match. "And he was grinding. When a guy puts that type of effort in and hangs in there and keeps going, we want to stick with him because we thought he was doing a good job and because he's goal dangerous.
"It was great to see him score."
The attacking subs Berhalter did make -- Gyasi Zardes and Cristian Roldan on for Daryl Dike and Paul Arriola -- had an impact too. It was a cross from Roldan that Hoppe got his head on, and it took a slight deflection off Zardes before Hoppe's redirection. Prior to the subs, neither Dike nor Arriola, who wore the captain's armband, posed much of a threat.
The win sets up an intriguing semifinal match on Thursday against Qatar -- the Asian champions and 2022 World Cup host. The Qataris were invited by CONCACAF to participate in the tournament as a guest nation, and they have scored 12 goals in four games, advancing through a 3-2 win against El Salvador on Saturday.
That impressive goal-scoring rate figures to provide the United States' defense a difficult test, which has been just about flawless in four games. There have been breakdowns at times, of course, but the USMNT has still yet to allow a goal from open play, as New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner and a young back line have been up to the task.
"We think they're a strong team, a fun team to watch, an attacking team very dangerous on the counterattack, some very skillful players, and this game is going to really help prepare us," Berhalter said.
"We talked about using this tournament to prepare the players, and playing against Qatar is going to do that. It's an opponent we're not used to, and it's going to be a great game."
"I thought Miles and James did an excellent job. I really do," Berhalter said. "Controlling the buildup but also battling. For young players, inexperienced players in knockout rounds, I thought they had an excellent game."
The center-back partnership is complimentary one. Robinson is more adept at putting out fires and defending in transition, while Sands has shown throughout the tournament his progressive passing is a huge asset from his position. Of the two, Sands has likely done more to raise his standing within the pool during the tournament, but it was Robinson who came up with the key plays against Jamaica and who will likely be called upon in similar situations against Qatar.