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 keep his job against England on Friday and as long as the men’s national team remains in the competition.

How impossible is all this? Let him explain.

“I have found my reflection. It’s crazy, even bananas,” Turner said. “It’s stuff you wouldn’t even think to write about because you’d be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not real.’ Compared to the people I share the dressing room with every day and their upbringing through the game, it’s a pretty wild story. It’s a unicorn.”

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

“I hope it shows somebody at some point that if they’re hesitant to get involved in sports or if they think it’s time to do something athletically or in their personal life, they can still do it,” Turner said.

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

He joins Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard as the latest in a line of U.S. goalkeepers to find a home in Europe’s top leagues while climbing the national team’s depth chart.

“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, the two-time World Cup boss of the United States. “Arsenal got themselves a very good goalkeeper.

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Take a closer look at the USMNT roster

The expectation last year was that Turner and Zack Steffen would compete for the starting job in the US. But when head 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 feels strongly about Turner being his No. 1 goaltender and Sean Johnson filling the No. 3 spot.

Then he decided that Ethan Horvat would be the best fit to step in for Turner at short notice if needed. Horvath entered the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final, saving a penalty kick and scoring a late save in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion win last spring.

With the situation clear ahead of the World Cup, Turner made a superb save before converting an 82nd-minute penalty from Gareth Bale to earn a 1-1 draw against Wales in their Group B opener. He followed Bale’s strike, but as the strike was so poisoned and deflected away from him, he could only glimpse.

The Americans will have to beat England on Friday or Iran on Tuesday to advance to the round of 16.

Monday’s starting assignment for Turner capped a remarkable 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 starting in June.

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

Turner did not play much at Arsenal. In league play, he served as back-up to Aaron Ramsdale, who was included 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. “Topchular” won the group and advanced to the 1/8 finals in March.

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

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“What I find difficult is that sometimes training as a goalkeeper is more difficult than the games,” he said. “In training, you do hundreds of moves every session and often fail. It is mentally and physically difficult. If you don’t have a benchmark of what a game looks like, it can be hard to see how far you’ve come.”

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

It was different in New England, where he has been a key starter since 2018 after returning from a loan at Richmond.

“It didn’t matter what I did week in, week out in practice in New England,” he said. “I was going to play and games became my criteria. So I think it’s all about how you approach the situation.”

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

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

“If you don’t bring it on a certain day, you’re found out pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those people to be recognized.”

Turner took a lesson in a special exercise.

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

“It really set the tone for my mentality at the club and to keep going no matter what. If you fail, it’s okay. What matters is how you react, not the failure itself.”

The USA men’s World Cup squad will face Wales, Iran and group favorite 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 the sport in the U.S.,” he said. “They applaud you for the little things you can do. Small 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. It’s really cool. Some sports in the US are scripted. They tell you He screens what he has to say, whereas in the Premier League – and in football – it can be a bit more organic.

England, aware of the weight of expectations, look to the World Cup spectacularly

Even without full-time assignments, Turner strengthened his national team status. Berhalter turned to him for the last two World Cups in September. 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 would 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 that there is a way out,” Turner said. “A guy from the New England Revolution who two or three years ago people would never have believed was doing business with Arsenal is starting the season with Arsenal.”

And now in the World Cup.

The world championship held in Qatar

Live updates: European powers take center stage on Wednesday in Qatar, where the World Cup group games continue. Stay tuned for the latest news, updates and highlights.

USMNT: Back at the World Cup, the young Americans were content with a 1-1 draw with Wales in their opening Group B game. The U.S. men’s national team will face a higher task against Group B favorite England, who defeated Iran 6-2 on Friday.

Qatar dispute: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusion, said they were not allowed into World Cup stadiums and confronted members of the public to remove the emblem.

Group guide: The U.S. men’s national soccer team, led by coach Greg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement from a disastrous and underwhelming 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group stack up.

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