“I thought. It’s crazy – even bananas,” Turner said. “These are things you wouldn’t even think about writing because it would be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense. It’s not real. It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people I share the dressing room with every day and their upbringing in the game. It’s a unicorn.”
Consider: he didn’t start playing football until he was 16 and never played for the youth national team. He played in the college shadow (Fairfield University) and was ignored in the MLS Draft. His professional debut was with the lower level Richmond Kickers. He made his debut for the national team only 22 months ago, at the age of 26.
“I just hope that someday this will show someone if they hesitate to play sports or not, or think it’s time to do something in sports or in their personal lives, they can still achieve it.” Turner said.
Turner is a latecomer who has been persistent, and his journey over the past six months has taken him from a New England revolution to Premier League leaders Arsenal and, within weeks, to a World Cup lead.
He is the latest in a long line of U.S. goaltenders to find their way into the European top leagues, climbing the national team depth chart, joining Casey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.
“I coached Brad Friedel, Casey Keller, goaltenders who played very well. [in the Premier League], and Matt can grow to that level,” said Revolution coach Bruce Arena, who twice managed the US World Cup. Arsenal have acquired a very good goalkeeper.”
A Closer Look at the USMNT List
Last year, Turner and Zach Steffen were expected to compete for the US starting position. But when coach Gregg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen wasn’t even on it.
Berhalter did not give a detailed explanation, but people familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said that Berhalter is adamant that Turner is his #1 goaltender and Sean Johnson is ranked #3.
He then decided that Ethan Horvath was best placed to fill in for Turner on short notice if necessary. The Croatian came on as a substitute in the 2021 Concacafe Nations League Final, saving a penalty, and was a late substitute in Premier League winning promotion Nottingham Forest last spring.
With the position cleared ahead of the World Cup, Turner made a stunning save in the Group B opener against Wales before Gareth Bale converted a penalty in the 82nd minute to draw 1–1. He followed Bale’s shot, but due to it was inflicted with such poison and swept far away from him, he could only make a glancing touch.
The Americans will probably need to beat England on Friday or Iran on Tuesday to reach the round of 16.
For Turner, Monday’s starting appointment ended a momentous year. In February, as Turner prepared to start his fifth full season in MLS, the Revolution agreed to sell him to Arsenal for at least $6 million starting in June.
Prior to joining the Gunners, he started in two of his four U.S. appearances, adding to a portfolio of eight starts in 14 2021-22 World Cup qualifiers. (Steffen started the other six.)
Turner played little at Arsenal. In league play, he served as backup to Aaron Ramsdale, who was named to the England squad for the World Cup.
Turner started Arsenal’s first four group matches in the UEFA Europa League – the continent’s second-tier competition – but missed the last two with a groin injury. The Gunners won the group and advanced to the round of 16 in March.
Turner conceded one goal in those four games, including a 1-0 victory over Bodo/Glimt, a Norwegian club north of the Arctic Circle.
“What I found difficult is that as a goalkeeper, sometimes it’s harder for me to train than to play,” he said of the understudy role. “In training, you see hundreds of moves every session and fail quite often. It’s hard, mentally and physically. It can be hard to know how far you’ve come if you don’t have a benchmark of what it looks like in the game.”
Things were different in New England, where, after returning from loan to Richmond, he has been a major starter since 2018.
“Week after week in New England, it didn’t really matter what I did in training,” he said. “I was going to play and games became a benchmark for me. So I think it’s all about how you approach the situation you’re in.”
Despite not playing regularly, Turner said he learned a lot from the ultra-competitive environment.
Perspective: Draw favored USMNT. But at some point “good” is not enough.
“If you don’t bring it on a certain day, you will be discovered pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys that people know.”
Turner learned his lesson in one particular workout.
“I gave the ball away and sort of showed that I was frustrated and frustrated,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “pushed me and said, ‘I don’t want to see this. I don’t like this kind of reaction. I want to see how you pack up and keep going.
“It really set the tone for my mentality at the club and I just kept going no matter what. If you fail, it’s all right. It’s how you react that matters, not the failure itself.”
Turner also learned to appreciate English football culture.
“It’s very different from sports in the United States,” he said. “They applaud you for the little things you can do. Small nuances of the game are welcome. It’s like an interactive experience, and the emotions of the fans are very closely related to the emotions of the game. It’s really cool. Some sports in the US are scripted. You are spoken to screens, what to say, whereas in the Premier League – and in football – things can be a little more organic.”
England, knowing the weight of expectations, opens the World Cup in style
Even without regular assignments, Turner cemented his national team status. Berhalter approached him in September for the last two World Cup settings. Amid disappointing team performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia, Turner was the only bright spot.
While Turner was healthy when training camp opened, he was set to start against Wales.
It has come a long way from the sleeper bus ride to Richmond’s away games five years ago.
“Looking at my story, I hope the kids see that there is a path,” Turner said. “The guy from the New England Revolution, who two or three years ago people didn’t even believe that he was doing business with Arsenal, started the season with Arsenal.
And now at the World Championships.
World Cup in Qatar.
Live updates: On Wednesday, European powers take the stage in Qatar as World Cup group play continues. Stay tuned for the latest news, updates and highlights.
USMNT: On their return to the World Cup, the young Americans agreed to a 1-1 draw with Wales in the opening Group B match. The US men’s team will face a bigger challenge on Friday against Group B favorites England, who thrashed Iran 6-2 earlier on Monday.
Qatari dispute: Football fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusiveness, said they were denied entry to World Cup stadiums and demanded by members of the public to remove the emblem.
Group Guide: The U.S. men’s soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement over the failed and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s a detailed look at how all the teams in each group stack up.