AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The guy who will be in goal in the Americans’ first World Cup game in eight years on Monday (2 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Sports App) didn’t start playing the sport seriously until he turned 16 , almost as old as US headliner Christian Pulisic was when he made his debut for the national team.
“It’s crazy – even bananas,” USA goalkeeper Matt Turner said this week of his odd rise from converted high school shortstop to regular at sport’s biggest event. “It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people I share a dressing room with every day.”
It would have been an unlikely story if only Turner had achieved his first goal: playing college football. A natural shot stopper largely because of his baseball background, he went on as a non-scholar at Connecticut’s Fairfield University — hardly an NCAA powerhouse. 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.
As a sophomore, he made a mistake so egregious that it went viral on the internet. Turner just shrugged it off and kept trying to improve.
“Most college-level players would never come back from that,” said Javier Decima, Fairfield’s goalkeeping coach. “Matt’s mindset is second to none.”
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This way of thinking has served him well.
Turner, who was undrafted by MLS after his career with the Stags, impressed during a tryout with the New England Revolution, who offered him a contract. As with Fairfield, it took him years to earn the starting job. He even briefly lost it in 2019 before regaining it. After that, however, the solid gymnast would not let it go.
He received his first call-up to the United States the following January and then waited until last year for his first cap. With then-starter Zack Steffen unavailable at the start of World Cup qualifiers in September 2021, coach Gregg Berhalter gave Turner the nod. He would play in eight of the 14 games, doing so well that Premier League leaders Arsenal paid the Revs $10m for his services earlier in the year. Turner accepted everything.
“I’m the type of person who gets things done and that doesn’t stay with me for 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 put down next?”
“I think that comes from years of not achieving anything,” he continued. “I was recruited too little, played too little. And since I didn’t feel valued, I had to find the value within myself to move on. That’s why I continue to only set myself goals.”
Being on the World Cup squad was the greatest of all. Turner fell in love with football while watching New Jersey’s Tim Howard save the Americans in the second round in South Africa in 2010. Then he devoted himself to his new sport.
A dozen years later – and with Steffen dropped from Berhalter’s 26-man roster – Turner is a shoo-in to start the opener if he’s healthy. He arrived in Doha with a groin strain that cost him two Europa League starts before the World Cup break but insisted this week he is now 100 per cent fit. “No restrictions,” he said.
Now Turner, 28, gets the opportunity to become one of the USMNT’s breakout stars in Qatar. US goalkeepers typically face a slew of shots at goal at World Cups, which puts them in the limelight in front of millions of their compatriots back home. Howard became an overnight celebrity in 2014 when he made 16 saves against Belgium, a new World Cup record.
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While a good World Cup performance combined with his Cinderella history and engaging personality could change his life, it’s unlikely to change him.
“Incredibly humble guy, always there for his teammates,” US defender DeAndre Yedlin said of Turner. “Ask anyone on this team and they’ll tell you that Matt is one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met.”
Will Turner take a moment to reflect on how far he’s come when he takes on Gareth Bale & Co on Monday?
“I’ve made my mind up,” Turner said. “Once you step into that field, nobody cares if you didn’t start playing football until you were 16.”
That doesn’t mean he’s unaware of how powerful his story could be.
“I just hope,” he said, “it’ll show someone one day whether they’re hesitating about whether or not they should exercise, or think it’s too late to do anything — either athletically or in their personal life or something.” they can still achieve it.”
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By DougMcIntyre.
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