Meet Matt Turner: USMNT keeper’s implausible World Cup journey

 

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The guy who will be in goal when the United States and Wales meet Monday in the Americans’ first World Cup game in eight years (2 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Sports app) didn’t begin playing the sport seriously until he was 16 — almost the same age U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic was when he made his national team debut.

“It’s crazy — bananas, even,” U.S. keeper Matt Turner said this week of his stranger-than-fiction rise from converted high school shortstop to starter at the biggest event in sports. “It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people I share a locker room with every day.”

Goalkeeper Matt Turner of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Arsenal FC and PSV Eindhoven at Emirates Stadium on October 20, 2022 in London, England.
(Visionhaus/Getty Images)

It would’ve been an unlikely tale had Turner merely achieved his first goal: playing college soccer. A natural shot-stopper largely because of that baseball background, he walked on as a non-scholarship player at Fairfield University in Connecticut — hardly an NCAA powerhouse. He sat on the bench for most of his first two seasons and had so little experience playing the ball with his feet that he couldn’t even take his own goal kicks.

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As a sophomore, he made a mistake so egregious that it went viral on the internet. Turner just shook it off and kept trying on to improve.

“Most players at the college level would never come back from that,” said Javier Decima, Fairfield’s goalkeeper coach. “Matt’s mindset is second to none.”

That mindset has served him well.

Undrafted by MLS after his career with the Stags, Turner impressed in a tryout with the New England Revolution, who offered him a contract. Like at Fairfield, it took him years to earn the starting job. He even lost it briefly in 2019 before winning it back. After that, though, the sure-handed Turner never let it go.

He received his first U.S. call-up the next January, then waited until last year for his first cap. With then-starter Zack Steffen unavailable when World Cup qualifying started in September 2021, coach Gregg Berhalter gave Turner the nod. He’d play in eight of the 14 games, performing so well that Premier League leader Arsenal paid the Revs $10 million for his services earlier this year. Turner has taken it all in stride.

Matt Turner of Arsenal during a training session at London Colney on October 26, 2022 in St Albans, England.
(Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“I’m the type of person that I achieve things, and it doesn’t stay with me for long,” Turner told reporters in Qatar on Wednesday. “It’s like what’s next, what can I continue to do, how can I keep moving forward, what can I knock down next?”

“That’s, I think, from years of not achieving anything,” he continued. “I was under-recruited, under-played. And feeling unappreciated, I had to find the appreciation within myself to keep going. That’s why I continue to just set goals.”

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Making the World Cup roster was the biggest of them all. Turner fell in love with soccer watching fellow New Jersey native Tim Howard backstop the Americans to the second round in South Africa in 2010. Afterward, he dedicated himself to his new sport.

A dozen years later — and with Steffen omitted from Berhalter’s 26-man roster — Turner is a shoo-in to start the opener if healthy. He arrived in Doha coming off a groin strain that cost him a pair of Europa League starts before the World Cup break, but insisted this week that he’s now 100-percent. “No limitations,” he said.

Now Turner, 28, gets the opportunity to become one of the USMNT’s breakout stars in Qatar. U.S. keepers tend to face a ton of shots at World Cups, putting them front and center in front of millions of their compatriots back home. Howard became an overnight celebrity in 2014 when his 16 saves against Belgium set a new World Cup record.

Matt Turner of United States poses during the official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 portrait session at on November 15, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
(Patrick Smith – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

While a good World Cup performance combined with his Cinderella story and engaging personality could be life changing, it’s unlikely to change him.

“Incredibly humble guy, always there for his teammates,” U.S. defender DeAndre Yedlin said of Turner. “Ask anybody on this team and they’ll tell you that Matt is one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met.”

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Will Turner take a moment to think about how far he’s come when he lines up against Gareth Bale & Co. on Monday?

“I’ve done my reflecting,” Turner said. “Once you step onto that field, no one cares if you didn’t start playing soccer until you were 16.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of how powerful his story could be.

“I just hope,” he said, “it goes to show somebody someday if they’re wavering whether or not to play a sport or thinking it’s too late to do something — either sports-wise or in their personal life or anything – that they can still achieve it.”