USMNT keeper's journey includes an atypical ascent, a 'SportsCenter' lowlight — and maybe a 2022 World Cup spot

Doug McIntyre
·5 min read

Back in June of 2010, Matt Turner was a 15-year-old high school baseball player who only dabbled in soccer to stay fit for the sports he preferred. “It was just a hobby,” Turner told Yahoo Sports in an interview earlier this week.

Then he accidentally discovered the World Cup.

I couldn’t land a summer job because of my age, but that meant I was home most afternoons, so I thought I would watch the opening game,” Turner said. “When South Africa — this team that I had no investment in — scored, that noise, I remember feeling goosebumps. And that just sort of sparked my interest in the tournament, and I decided I was gonna watch all the U.S. national team’s games.”

Now, little more than a decade later, the New England Revolution goalkeeper somehow is poised to make his international debut for the U.S. against Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday [7 p.m. ET, FS1], the first match of 2021 for an American squad desperate to return to the planet’s biggest sporting event.

How did that happen?

BRADENTON, FL - JANUARY 08: Matt Turner of the United States laugh during a drill at IMG Academy on January 08, 2020 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
BRADENTON, FL - JANUARY 08: Matt Turner of the United States laugh during a drill at IMG Academy on January 08, 2020 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In age of star teenage pros, Turner is a throwback. As a kid, he played soccer along with baseball, basketball and hockey, but actually quit the sport before picking it back up as a 5-foot-4, 150-pound ninth grader at Saint Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey. “They never let me play in the goal,” he said of his youth soccer coaches. “And that’s always where I wanted to be.”

The freshman team was fun, but that’s as far as Turner’s interest went. A diehard New York Yankees fan, he was only vaguely aware of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls. He didn’t know much about New Jersey’s long history of producing USMNT players, including World Cup goalkeepers Tim Howard and Tony Meola. But during the USA’s run to a Group C victory that summer, everything changed.

“Nothing made me feel the feelings I felt when the U.S. was playing,” Turner said. “The goal against England, obviously that counterattack against Algeria — I was screaming at my television and jumping up and down. When the World Cup ended, I remember wondering what happened to me over the last month. No other sport that I’d ever watched or played made me feel those emotions. That’s sort of what got me into soccer and made me want to get better.”

Turner began to practice constantly. He sought out YouTube clips of Howard, Uruguay’s Néstor Muslera and Manchester United great Peter Schmeichel.

He got better, and taller — Turner now stands 6-3 — and as a junior he won the starting varsity job at St. Joe’s, a gridiron powerhouse but far from one in soccer. “I was extremely busy because my team wasn’t that good,” Turner said.

The following season he joined a club team, Clarkstown FC, in neighboring New York State. His goal was to play in the NCAA, but that was hardly guaranteed. Had Fairfield University goalkeeper coach Javier Decima not taken a chance on him, it might not have happened at all.

“Everyone can see a good player — the hard part is finding the ones you believe have potential and then getting that potential out of them,” Decima said. “Matt was very athletic. He had big hands. And because he played baseball, he was able to use his footwork to get in line with the ball and make those big saves. But in terms of the game itself, he lacked the experience.”

Turner was offered a spot with the Stags, but not a scholarship. He struggled initially. Playing the ball with his feet was a constant adventure. “I couldn’t take my own goal kicks until I was 18,” he said. In his second season at Fairfield, he made a mistake so egregious the lowlight ended up on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” “Most players at the college level would never come back from that — especially a goalkeeper,” Decima said.

Yet Turner did, displaying the mental strength that would help him take over the starting job following the graduation of Michael O'Keeffe — who’d backstopped New Zealand’s national team at the 2012 Olympics — and eventually catch the eye of the Revs, which signed him in 2016 as an undrafted college player. “Matt’s mindset,” said Decima, “is second to none.”

Turner’s internal drive hasn’t gone unnoticed by U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. “It's night and day compared to last January,” Berhalter said of Turner’s progress while speaking with reporters Monday. “He had the reflexes, but now his whole game is improved. He's gained confidence.”

A good showing on Sunday would keep Turner firmly in the mix in a position of need; while Manchester City’s Zack Steffen is Berhalter’s clear No. 1 goalkeeper, the competition is wide open after that, with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid and Ethan Horvath all jockeying for spots. The 2022 World Cup is now on the horizon, with the Americans’ qualifying scheduled to begin in September. Should they make it, three keepers will travel to Qatar.

“It does feel like there’s a lot of opportunity,” Turner said. “I can’t look too far in the future and start thinking about all these possibilities — just to be with the national team right now means a lot to me — but being part of a World Cup squad absolutely is the end goal.”

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