The ‘bananas’ story of late USMNT World Cup goaltender Matt Turner


Soccer

“I did my thinking. It’s crazy, even bananas.

Matt Turner was the starting keeper for the United States on Monday and is expected to start again on Friday when the USMNT take on England. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post Photo by Jabin Botsford

  • The 'bananas' story of late USMNT World Cup goaltender Matt Turner

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

How improbable is all this? Let him explain himself.

“I did my thinking. It’s crazy – even bananas,” Turner said. “These are things that you wouldn’t even think of writing about because it would be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense. That’s not real. That’s a pretty crazy story compared to the people that I share a locker room every day and educate them through play. It’s a unicorn.

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

“I just hope it shows someone someday, whether or not they’re hesitant to play this sport or if they think it’s time to do something sportingly or in their personal life, they can still achieve that,” Turner said.

Turner is a latecomer who persevered, and his journey took him through the final six months of the New England Revolution to Premier League leaders Arsenal and, for a few weeks, a starring role in the World Cup. .

He became the latest in a long line of American goalkeepers who have found their place in Europe’s top leagues while climbing the national team’s depth chart, joining Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.

“I coached Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, goalkeepers who played very well [in the Premier League], and Matt can get to that level,” said Revolution coach Bruce Arena, two-time World Cup boss USA. “Arsenal have acquired a very good goalkeeper.

Over the past year, Turner and Zack Steffen were expected to compete for the starting job in the United States. 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Berhalter was convinced that Turner was his No. Sean Johnson held the No. 3 position.

He then decided that Ethan Horvath would be best suited to replace Turner on 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 promotion Nottingham Forest’s Premier League win last spring.

With the position clarified ahead of the World Cup, Turner produced a terrific 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 moved away from him, he could only manage a glance.

The Americans will have to beat England on Friday or Iran next Tuesday to have a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

For Turner, Monday’s departing mission capped off a momentous year. Last February, as Turner prepared to enter 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 two of America’s four appearances, adding to a portfolio that included eight starts in the 14 World Cup qualifiers in 2021-22. (Steffen started the other six.)

At Arsenal, who sit at the top of the Premier League, Turner hasn’t played much. In the league, he came on as a substitute for Aaron Ramsdale, who was part of England’s World Cup squad.

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 qualified for the round of 16 in March.

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

“What I found difficult was that sometimes as a goalkeeper training is more difficult than games,” he said of the largely backup role. “In training, you see hundreds of actions in each session and you fail quite often. It’s tough, mentally and physically. It can be hard to see how far you’ve come if you don’t have the reference of what it looks like in a game.”

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

“Week after week in New England, it didn’t matter what I did in practice,” he said. “I was going to play and the games became my benchmark, so I think it all depends on how you approach the situation you find yourself in.

Although he doesn’t play regularly, Turner said he learned a lot in an ultra-competitive environment.

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

Turner learned a lesson during a particular training session.

“I gave away a ball and kind of showed that I was frustrated and upset,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “shoved me around and basically said, ‘I don’t want to see this. I don’t like this reaction. I want to see you pick yourself up and carry on.

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

Turner also came to appreciate English football culture.

“It’s very different from the sport in the United States,” he said. “They applaud you for the little things you could do. The small nuances of play are appreciated. It’s like an interactive experience and the emotions of the fans follow the emotions of the game very closely. It’s really cool. Some sports in the United States are scripted. They tell you on screens what to say, whereas things in the Premier League – and football – can be a bit more organic.

Even without full-time assignments, Turner solidified his national team status. Berhalter turned to him in September for the final two World Cup tune-ups. Amid disappointing team performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia, Turner was the only bright spot.

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

Five years ago, there’s a long way to go between sleeper buses and away games in Richmond.

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

And now in the World Cup too.



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