How USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner landed at the World Cup

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

How is this impossible? Let him explain.

“I’ve done my reflection. It’s crazy — even bananas,” Turner said. “It’s the kind of thing you don’t think to write because it’s like, ‘Oh, that makes no sense. That’s not true.’ It’s a poor story compared to what I share a locker room with every day and what they bring up through the game. It’s a unicorn.”

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

“If they’re wavering on whether or not to play sports or if they think it’s time to do something sports-wise or in their personal life, I hope it shows up to somebody at some point,” Turner said.

Turner is a tenacious late bloomer, and his journey over the past six months has taken him from New England revolutionaries to Premier League leaders Arsenal and, for weeks, a pivotal role at the World Cup.

He became the latest in a long line of American goalkeepers to find homes in top European leagues as the national team climbed the deep ranks, joining Casey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.

“I’ve coached Brad Friedel, Casey Keller, the goalkeepers, and they’ve played great. [in the Premier League], and Matt can grow to that level,” said Revolution coach Bruce Arena, a two-time U.S. World Cup captain. “Arsenal have got themselves a great goalkeeper.”

A closer look at the USMNT roster

Last year, Turner and Zach Steffen were expected to compete for the American starting job. But when coach Greg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen wasn’t even on it.

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Berhalder did not provide a detailed explanation, but people familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Berhalder felt strongly about Turner being his No. 1 keeper and Sean Johnson filling the No. 3 spot.

He decided that Ethan Horvath was the perfect fit to come to Turner on short notice if needed. Horvath entered the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League final as a substitute, saving a penalty kick and was a late sub in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion win last spring.

With the standings clear ahead of the World Cup, Turner made a terrific save in the Group B opener against Wales before Gareth Bale converted an 82nd-minute penalty to draw 1-1. He tracked down Bale’s shot, but it was hit with so much venom and bounced away from him that he could only manage a glancing touch.

The Americans must beat England or Iran next Friday to advance to the round of 16.

For Turner, Monday’s start capped off an eventful 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 America’s four matches, adding to a portfolio that included eight starts in 14 World Cup qualifiers in 2021-22. (Steffen started other rivers.)

Turner didn’t play much at Arsenal. In league play, he served as back-up to Aaron Ramsdale in 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 their group and progressed to the round of 16 in March.

Turner conceded one goal in those four games, including a 1–0 win at Bodø/Klimt, a Norwegian club located north of the Arctic Circle.

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“What I find challenging is sometimes, as a goalkeeper, more difficult than practice games,” he said of his mostly backup role. “In training, you see hundreds of actions in each session, and you often fail. It is mentally and physically tough. If you don’t have a yardstick of what it looks like in a game, it’s hard to see how far you’ve come.

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

It’s different in New England, where he’s been a primary starter since 2018 after returning from a loan to Richmond.

“Week in week out in New England, it doesn’t matter what I do in practice,” he said. “I was going to play and games became my benchmark. So I think it depends on how you approach the situation you’re in.

Despite not playing regularly, Turner said he learned a lot in the competitive environment.

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

“If you don’t bring it up on a certain day, you’ll find out soon enough,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those people who gets notified.”

Turner learned the lesson in one particular exercise.

“I gave a ball away and showed that I was frustrated and upset,” he said. Manager Mikel Arteta “pushed me away and said, ‘I don’t want to see that. I don’t like that reaction. I want to see you pick yourself up and keep going.’

“I think that really set the tone for my mentality at the club, to keep going no matter what. It’s okay to fail. It’s about how you react, not about failure.

The U.S. 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 a lot different than sports in America,” he said. “They appreciate 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 really closely follow the emotions of the game. That’s really cool. Some games in America are scripted. They tell you Screening what has to be said, whereas things in the Premier League – and in football – are a little more organic.

England, aware of the weight of expectations, are making the World Cup look much better

Even without full-time assignments, Turner solidified 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 a lone bright spot.

As long as Turner is fit when training camp starts, he is set to start against Wales.

It’s a far cry from riding sleeper buses to Richmond’s away matches five years ago.

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

And now, in the World Cup as well.

World Cup in Qatar

Live Notifications: The European powers take center stage in Qatar on Wednesday, 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 were held to a 1-1 draw against Wales in their Group B opener. The US Men’s National Team will face a tall task against Group B favorites England, who beat Iran 6-2 earlier on Monday.

Qatar Controversy: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, have been denied entry into World Cup stadiums and public protests against the removal of the symbol have been reported.

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

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