How USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner landed at the World Cup

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RAYYAN, Qatar — Matt Turner was the starting goalkeeper for the United States in Monday’s World Cup opener and, barring unforeseen events, he will keep the job for Friday’s match against England and as long as the men’s national team remains in contention.

How amazing is all of this? Let him explain.

“I’ve done my thinking. It’s crazy – even bananas,” Turner said. “It’s stuff you wouldn’t even think to write about because it would be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense. This is not real. It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people I share a locker room with every day and their upbringing through the game. It’s a unicorn.”

Consider: He didn’t start playing competitive soccer until he was 16 and never played for a youth national team. He played in the shadows of college (Fairfield University) and was ignored in the MLS draft. His professional debut came with the lower division Richmond Kickers. He made his senior national team debut only 22 months ago, aged 26.

“I just hope it shows somebody someday that if they’re hesitant about playing a sport or not or they think it’s time to do something in their sport or in their personal life, they can still make it happen,” Turner said.

Turner is a late bloomer who has persevered and his journey has taken him over the past six months from the New England Revolution to Premier League leaders Arsenal and within weeks to a leading role at the World Cup.

He became the latest in a long line of American goalkeepers to find a home in top European leagues while climbing the national team ranks, 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, a two-time USA World Championship boss. “Arsenal got themselves a very good goalkeeper.”

A closer look at the USMNT roster

This past year, the expectation was that Turner and Zach Steffen would battle for the starting job in the USA. But when coach Greg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen wasn’t even on it.

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Berhalter didn’t elaborate, but people familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Berhalter strongly believes Turner is his No. 1 guard and Sean Johnson fills the No. 3 position.

He then decided that Ethan Horvath would be the best fit to fill in for Turner at short notice if needed. Horvath came on as a substitute in the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final, saving a penalty, and was a late substitute in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion win last spring.

With the position cleared ahead of the World Cup, Turner made a superb save in the Group B opener against Wales before Gareth Bale converted an 82nd-minute penalty for a 1-1 draw. He followed Bale’s shot, but because he was hit with such venom and deflected from it, he only managed to catch a glimpse.

The Americans will need to beat England on Friday or Iran next Tuesday to have any chance of advancing to the round of 16.

For Turner, Monday’s starting assignment capped off an important year. In February, as Turner prepared to begin his fifth full MLS season, the Revolution agreed to sell him to Arsenal for at least $6 million, effective in June.

Before joining the Gunners, he started two of four games for the U.S., adding to a portfolio that included eight starts in the 14 qualifiers for the 2021-22 World Cup. (Steffen started the other six.)

At Arsenal, who are top of the Premier League, Turner hasn’t played much. In league games, he served as back-up to Aaron Ramsdale, who made England’s World Cup squad.

Turner did start Arsenal’s first four group games 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 qualified for the round of 16 in March.

Turner conceded one goal in those four games, including a 1-0 win against Bodø/Glimt, a Norwegian club located just north of the Arctic Circle.

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“The thing I find challenging is that sometimes as a goalkeeper the training is harder than the games,” he said of the role as a reserve player. “During training, you see hundreds of moves every session and you fail quite often. It’s hard, mentally and physically. It can be hard to see how far you’ve come if you don’t have a benchmark of what it looks like in a game.”

US Men’s National Team coach Greg Berhalter has a talented young squad with experience in Europe’s top leagues but not in international competition. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Another was in New England, where, after returning from a loan at Richmond, he was the primary starter from 2018 onward.

“Week in and week out in New England it didn’t really matter what I did in practice,” he said. “I would play and games became my benchmark. So I think it all depends on how you approach the situation you’re in.”

Although he doesn’t play regularly, Turner said he’s learned a tremendous amount in a highly competitive environment.

Outlook: The tie was good for the USMNT. But at some point “good” isn’t good enough.

“If you don’t bring it on a certain day, you get busted pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets famous.”

Turner learned a lesson in one particular practice.

“I gave the ball away and I kind of showed that I was disappointed and upset,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “bumped me and basically said, ‘I don’t want to see this. I don’t like this reaction. I want to see you get up and go on.

“I think that really set the tone for my mentality at the club and just to keep going no matter what. If you fail, no problem. What matters is how you react, not the failure itself.

The USA men’s World Cup team will face Wales, Iran and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Turner has also learned to appreciate English football culture.

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“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 appreciated. It’s like an interactive experience and the emotions of the fans really follow the emotions of the game. This is really great. Some sports in the US are scripted. They tell you to checks what I have to say, whereas things in the Premier League – and in football – can be a bit more organic.”

England, who know the weight of expectation, open the World Cup looking magnificent

Even without permanent appointments, Turner cemented his status in the national team. Berhalter turned to him in September for the last two World Cup setups. Amid the team’s disappointing performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia, Turner was the lone bright spot.

As long as Turner was healthy to open training camp, he would start against Wales.

It’s a long way from riding sleeper buses to visiting Richmond five years ago.

“Looking at my story, I hope kids can see that there is a path,” Turner said. “A New England Revolution man who two, three years ago, people would never have believed was doing business with Arsenal, was starting the season with Arsenal.”

And now to the world championship.

World Cup in Qatar

Live Updates: The European powers take center stage on Wednesday in Qatar where World Cup group matches continue. Stay tuned for the latest news, updates and highlights.

USMNT: In their return to the World Cup, the young Americans settled for a 1-1 draw against Wales in their opening Group B match. The US men’s national team will face a higher task on Friday against Group B favorites England, who crushed Iran 6-2 earlier on Monday.

Qatar dispute: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusion, have said they have been denied access to World Cup stadiums and are facing public pressure to remove the emblem.

Group Guide: The US men’s national soccer team, led by coach Greg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, improving on a disastrous and underachieving 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group stack up.

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