“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. That’s 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 college shadows (Fairfield University) and was ignored in the MLS draft. His professional 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 shows somebody at some point, if they’re hesitating whether or not to play the sport or think it’s time to do something either athletically or in their personal life, they can still make it,” Turner said.
Turner is a late bloomer who persevered, and his journey has taken him in the past six months from the New England Revolution to Premier League leader 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 by climbing the national team depth chart, joining Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.
“I coached Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, goalies who played very well [in the Premier League], and Matt can grow to that level,” said Revolution Coach Bruce Arena, a two-time U.S. World Cup head coach. “Arsenal has become a very good goalkeeper.”
A closer look at the USMNT roster
Over the past year, the expectation was Turner and Zack Steffen would compete for the American starting job. But when coach Gregg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen wasn’t even on it.
Berhalter did not elaborate, but people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Berhalter feels strongly about Turner as his No. 1 guard and Sean Johnson filling the No. 3 slot.
He then decided that Ethan Horvath would be best suited to step in for Turner at short, if needed. Horvath entered the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final as a sub, saving a penalty, and was a late sub in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion win last spring.
With the position clarified ahead of the World Cup, Turner made one terrific save in the Group B opener against Wales before Gareth Bale converted an 82nd-minute penalty for a 1-1 draw. He traced Bale’s shot, but as it was hit with such venom and streaked away from him, he could only manage a glancing touch.
The Americans will have to beat England on Friday or Iran next Tuesday to have any chance of advancing to the round of 16.
For Turner, the starting job Monday capped 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 United States matches, adding to a portfolio that included eight starts in the 2021-22 World Cup 14 qualifiers. (Steffen started the other six.)
At Arsenal, who sit atop the Premier League, Turner didn’t play much. In league play, he served as the backup to Aaron Ramsdale, who made the England 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 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 just north of the Arctic Circle.
“The thing I found difficult is sometimes, as a goalkeeper, training is more difficult than games,” he said of the mostly reserve role. “In training, you see hundreds of actions 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 the benchmark of what it looks like in a game.”
It was different in New England, where, after returning from a loan to Richmond, he was the main starter from 2018.
“Week in and week out in New England, it didn’t really matter what I did in training,” he said. “I’m going to play, and the games have become 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 sometimes, “good” isn’t enough.
“If you don’t bring it on a certain day, you’ll find out pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets notified.”
Turner learned a lesson at one particular training session.
“I gave a ball away, and I kind of showed that I was frustrated and upset,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “pushed me and basically was like, ‘I don’t want to see that. I don’t like that reaction. I want to see you pick yourself up and carry on.’
“I think that really set the tone for my mindset within the club, and just keep going, no matter what. If you fail, that’s okay. It’s how you react, not about 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 could do. The little nuances of the game are appreciated. It’s like an interactive experience, and the emotions of the fans really follow closely to the emotions of the game. That’s really cool. Some sports in the United States are scripted. They tell you on the screens what to say, while 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 turned to him in September for the last two World Cup settings. 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 will start against Wales.
It’s a long way from driving sleeper buses to Richmond’s away matches five years ago.
“Looking at my story, I hope kids can see that there is a way,” Turner said. “A guy from the New England Revolution, who two, three years ago, people would never have even believed that he was doing business with Arsenal, started the season with Arsenal.”
And now also in the World Cup.
World Cup in Qatar
Live updates: 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 U.S. men’s national team will face a taller task on Friday against Group B favorite England, which demolished Iran, 6-2, earlier on Monday.
Qatar conflict: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, said they were refused entry to World Cup stadiums and confronted by members of the public for removing the logo.
Groups guide: The US men’s national soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, improving on its disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group stack up.