After signing two teenagers to Homegrown Player contracts in the middle of June, the Seattle Sounders added another Homegrown at the end of the month when they signed Shandon Hopeau to the First Team from Tacoma Defiance.
Hopeau, already a seasoned USL veteran at the age of 21, is older and more experienced than the last few HGPs that the team has added and joins the side with maybe less hype or fanfare than the others. Having played only one season with the Academy, Hopeau joined what was then S2 in 2017 and has quietly been working his way towards an opportunity with the First Team since. Given his trajectory, unless you spend a lot of time watching the Defiance, you may be wondering just what Hopeau has to offer to the Sounders in the MLS is Back Tournament and beyond. Well, I’m glad that you asked.
Back in January when Brian Schmetzer and Garth Lagerwey were talking about young players getting opportunities to earn First Team contracts during preseason, I put together a list of the five players I thought were most likely to take advantage. Hopeau was the first name on that list for a number of reasons, from his athleticism and increasing ability to put the ball in the back of the net at the professional level, to his ability to be coached and his commitment to learn and improve. Let’s look at what that all actually looks like, and how it could fit into the way that the Sounders play.
Hopeau has patiently plied his trade in USL for three full seasons, adding to his game where he was deficient, learning a new position, taking on increased responsibility as a leader by example on the field. That patience and growth resulted in a serious blossoming in the second half of the 2019 season for him as he helped drive the Defiance attack with four goals and three assists in his last 12 appearances to close out the campaign.
“I think that the biggest thing for me is that if you’re coachable it’s easier for you to learn,” explained Hopeau following a training session in October. “So the main thing for me was to come to practice every day and listen to Chris [Little] and learn his style of play, and I feel like I just got better throughout the season.”
In 2019 part of that learning process was a move from the left wing to the right. Hopeau, a naturally right-footed player, preferred the left because it allowed him to cut in and shoot with his dominant foot. Learning a new position required work as he adjusted to new challenges and angles in attack, becoming more adept at creating chances for his teammates with that right foot, but it also required that he focus on the other parts of the game as well.
As Defiance head coach Chris Little explained back in 2019, “I think the biggest thing this year we’ve tried to work with him on is the other part of the game, the defending.”
To his credit, Hopeau took that to heart, committing himself to the success of the team over his own individual accomplishments.
“For me it’s just a team effort,” Hopeau said. “I feel like if I help them, they’ll help me in every situation I’m in. I feel like if I help more on defense we’ll concede less goals.”
Hopeau has a soul-level connection to the goal, constantly driving him to scoring or creating opportunities for his teammates to score by any means necessary, occasionally resulting in the sublime. While Hopeau is right-footed, he’s also capable of doing the work with his left. While Hopeau can strike the ball with Happy Gilmore-like ferocity resulting in rockets from outside the box, his understanding of space and clever movement inside of the box allows him to score more opportunistic chances, as well, which should come in handy late in games during the MLS is Back when a possible lack of fitness or sharpness could result in scrappier opportunities.
While Hopeau can score goals himself, in 2019 he stepped up his ability to play the ball into the box for his teammates to finish. Part of that is the result of moving to the right wing and being able to play passes in with his dominant foot, but according to coach Little, the real key is his ability to get into the position to play those killer passes.
“For me the biggest thing is Shandon’s always had this ability to beat an opponent on the dribble, he has a quickness to that, a deception,” Little said.
Watching Hopeau drive at an opposing fullback, either with or without the ball, that quickness is apparent. Hopeau has enough speed to hang with most opponents, but his ability to change pace or direction on a dime is really how he creates separation. His movement is incredibly fluid — the way he switches and flicks his hips, and throws off defenders with a feint before cutting around them is Prime Doug Baldwin-esque — and he doesn’t seem to lose a step with the ball at his feet. The defenders at the MLS level are clearly a higher quality than the ones in USL Championship, but if he can be anywhere close to how effective he has been with Tacoma, a player of Raúl Ruidíaz’s quality is going to enjoy the service he can provide.
Hopeau’s commitment to the defensive side of the game helped him to take a step forward in 2019, as he was successful in more than 75% of his tackles. While he didn’t make a ton of tackles — just over 1 tackle per 90 minutes — on the wing those tackles are likely to result in attacking opportunities. Hopeau’s ability to read space makes him a capable and effective part of a press when needed, as well.
His speed and strength allow him to get back quickly to defend in transition when attack turns into defense, which should come in handy when team chemistry and cohesion is likely to be challenged given the circumstances of an extended break due to the pandemic and the likelihood of playing in largely changed squads as up to five players sub into a game and rotation is made necessary due to fixture congestion. Hopeau’s defense should mean that while he could be brought on as a spark when the team is pushing for a goal late in a game, he can equally be brought on to close up shop and help the team hold onto a lead.
Outlook for 2020 and beyond
There’s no question that Hopeau has earned his spot with the Sounders as they prepare for their first game of the MLS is Back Tournament. He’ll face stiff competition for minutes behind Cristian Roldan and Miguel Ibarra, among others, but there will be minutes to be claimed. When he gets his opportunities, he’s done the preparation necessary to take advantage.
The practice of comparing and projecting players is a tricky one — it’s difficult, and can unfortunately limit or pigeon-hole players by association — but watching Hopeau play, and especially watching his goals, I can’t help but think of Lamar Neagle. Both players have a drive to improve themselves, to succeed, and while at times that might mean unflashy contributions highlighted by defensive work-rate and a willingness to cover every inch of the field, Neagle also was a part of one of the highest-flying Sounders attacks in MLS history. In 2014 Neagle was third on the team in both goals and assists with 9 of each, behind Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
I can’t guarantee what Hopeau’s career will look like, or what his ceiling is. I don’t know if he’s got a 9-goal, 9-assist MLS season in him, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got a few of these in him.