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, will retain the job for Friday’s clash against England and until that the men’s national team remains in the competition.

How unlikely is all this? Let him explain.

“I did my thinking. It’s crazy – even bananas,” said Turner. “It’s stuff you wouldn’t even think to write, because you’d be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense.’ It is not true. It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people he shares a locker room with every day and his education through the game. It’s a unicorn.”

Consider: He didn’t start playing competitive soccer until he was 16 and never played for a national youth team. He played in the shadows of college (Fairfield University) and was overlooked in the MLS draft. His pro debut came with the lower-tier Richmond Kickers. He did not make his senior national team debut until 22 months ago, at the age of 26.

“I just hope it goes to show somebody one day, whether they’re doubting whether or not to play sports or think it’s time to do something either in sports or in their personal life, they can still achieve it,” 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, for a few weeks, a leading role in the World Cup.

He became the latest in a long line of American goalkeepers to find homes in major European leagues as he climbed the national team’s depth chart, joining Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.

“I coached Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, goaltenders who played very well [in the Premier League]and Matt can grow to that level,” said Revolution coach Bruce Arena, two-time United States World Cup captain. “Arsenal has acquired a great goalkeeper.”

A closer look at the USMNT roster

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For the past year, the expectation was that Turner and Zack Steffen were competing for the starting job in the United States. But when coach Gregg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen wasn’t even there.

Berhalter did not elaborate, but people familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Berhalter felt strongly that Turner was his No. 1 point guard.

He then decided that Ethan Horvath would be better suited to step in for Turner at short notice if needed. Horvath entered the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final as a sub, saving a penalty kick, and was subbed on late in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion win last spring.

With the position clarified ahead of the World Cup, Turner made a fantastic 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 had been hit by such venom and was moving away from him, he could only manage a glance.

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

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

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

Turner didn’t play much at Arsenal. In the league game, he served as a backup to Aaron Ramsdale, who made the English World Cup team.

Turner started 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 advanced to the round of 16 in March.

Turner conceded one goal over those four games, including a 1-0 win at Bodo/Glimt, a Norwegian club located north of the Arctic Circle.

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“What I find challenging is sometimes, as a goalkeeper, the training is harder than the games,” he said of the wide backup role. “In training, you see hundreds of actions every session, and you fail quite often. It’s difficult, mentally and physically. It can be difficult to see how far you’ve come if you don’t have the benchmark of how you look in a game.”

US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has a talented young squad with experience in top European leagues, but not in international competition. (Video: Joshua Carroll / The Washington Post)

It was different in New England, where, after returning from a loan to Richmond, he was the first starter from 2018.

“Week in, week out in New England, it didn’t really matter what I was doing in training,” he said. “I had to play, and the games became my benchmark. So, I think it’s all about how you approach the situation you’re in.”

Despite not playing regularly, Turner said he learned immensely in an ultra-competitive environment.

Outlook: A draw was good for the USMNT. But at some point, “good” isn’t good enough.

“If you didn’t wear it on a certain day, you found out pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who knows each other.”

Turner learned a lesson in one particular training session.

“I gave a ball, and I showed that I was frustrated and angry,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “pushed me and basically I was like, ‘I don’t want to see it. I don’t like that reaction. I want to see you pick yourself up and carry on.

“I think he really set the tone for my mentality in the club and just to continue, no matter what. If you fail, it’s okay. What matters is the way you react, not the failure itself.”

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

Turner 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. The little nuances of the game are appreciated. It’s like an interactive experience, and the emotions of the fans follow really close to the emotions of the game. It’s really cool. Some sports in the United States are written. They tell you about the screens what they say, whereas things in the Premier League – and in football – can be a bit more organic.”

England, who know the weight of expectations, open the World Cup looking splendid

Even without full-time assignments, Turner strengthened his national team status. Berhalter returned to him in September for the last two World Cup tuneups. Amid disappointing team performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia, Turner was the lone bright spot.

As long as Turner was healthy when training camp opened, he was going to start against Wales.

It’s a long way from riding the sleeper bus to parties outside of Richmond five years ago.

“Looking at my story, I hope kids can see that there is a path,” Turner said. “A guy from the New England Revolution, who two, three years ago, people didn’t even believe would do business with Arsenal, is starting the season with Arsenal.”

And now also in the World Cup.

World Cup in Qatar

Live Updates: The European powers take center stage on Wednesday in Qatar, where World Cup group play continues. Follow 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 Group B opener. The US men’s national team will face a higher task on Friday against Group B favorite England, who demolished Iran, 6-2, earlier on Monday.

Qatar controversy: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, said they were refused entry into World Cup stadiums and confronted by members of the public for removing the emblem.

Group guide: The United States men’s national soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement on their disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s a close look at how all teams in each group stack up.

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