Meet Matt Turner: USMNT keeper’s implausible World Cup journey

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The guy who will be in goal when the United States and Wales meet Monday in the Americans’ first World Cup game in eight years (2 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Sports App) he didn’t start playing the sport seriously until he was 16, almost the same age as American headliner Christian Pulisic when he made his national team debut.

“It’s crazy, even bananas,” American goalkeeper Matt Turner said this week of his stranger-than-fiction rise from high school shortstop turned starter in the sport’s biggest event. “It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people I share the dressing room with every day.”

It would have been an unlikely story if Turner had only achieved his first goal: to play college football. A natural shortstop in large part because of that baseball background, he went on as a non-scholarship player at Fairfield University in Connecticut, barely an NCAA power. He sat on the bench for most of his first two seasons and had so little experience playing the ball with his feet that he couldn’t even take his own goal kicks.

When he was a sophomore, he made a mistake so egregious that it went viral on the Internet. Turner just shrugged it off and kept trying to get better.

“Most players at the college level would never come back from that,” said Javier Decima, Fairfield’s goalie coach. “Matt’s mentality is second to none.”

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This mentality has served him well. Undrafted by MLS after his career with the Stags, Turner impressed in a trial with the New England Revolution, who offered him a contract. As a Fairfielder, it took years to earn the starting job. He even lost it briefly in 2019 before regaining it. After that, though, the confident Turner never let it go.

He received his first call-up to the United States the following January, and then waited until last year to get his first head. With then-starter Zack Steffen unavailable when World Cup qualifying began in September 2021, manager Gregg Berhalter gave Turner the nod. He would play in eight of the 14 games, performing so well that Premier League leaders Arsenal paid the Revs $10 million for his services earlier this year. Turner has taken it all in stride.

“I’m the type of person who gets things done and that doesn’t last long,” Turner told reporters in Qatar on Wednesday. “It’s like what’s next, what can I keep doing, how can I keep moving forward, what can I knock down next?”

“That’s, I think, years of not getting anything done,” he continued. “I was under-recruited, under-played. And feeling under-appreciated, I had to find the appreciation within myself to keep going. That’s why I keep setting goals.”

Making the World Cup roster was the biggest thing of all. Turner fell in love with soccer watching fellow New Jerseyan Tim Howard accompany the Americans to the second round in South Africa in 2010. Afterward, he devoted himself to his new sport.

A dozen years later, and with Steffen omitted from Berhalter’s 26-man roster, Turner is a good fit to start the opener if healthy. He arrived in Doha after a groin strain that cost him a couple of Europa League games before the World Cup break, but insisted this week that he is now 100 per cent. “No limitations,” he said.

Now Turner, 28, has a chance to become one of the USMNT’s breakout stars in Qatar. American goalkeepers tend to face plenty of shots at the World Cup, putting them front and center in front of millions of their countrymen at home. Howard became an overnight celebrity in 2014 when his 16 saves against Belgium set a new World Cup record.

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While a good World Cup performance combined with his Cinderella story and attractive personality could be life-changing, it’s unlikely to change him.

“An incredibly humble guy, always there for his teammates,” American defender DeAndre Yedlin said of Turner. “Ask anyone on this team and they’ll tell you Matt is one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met.”

Will Turner take a moment to reflect on how far he has come when he lines up against Gareth Bale & Co. on Monday?

“I’ve done my thinking,” Turner said. “Once you get on that field, nobody cares if you didn’t start playing football until you were 16.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of how powerful his story can be.

“I just hope,” he said, “that somebody shows somebody if they’re questioning whether or not to play a sport or think it’s too late to do something, whether it’s athletically or in their personal life or whatever, that they still can achieve”.

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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.

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