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The ‘bananas’ story of Matt Turner, the late-blooming USMNT goalkeeper at the World Cup

Matt Turner was the starting goalkeeper for the United States on Monday and is expected to start again Friday when the USMNT faces England. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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RAYYAN, Qatar — Matt Turner was the starting goalkeeper for the United States in the World Cup opener Monday, and barring unforeseen events, he will retain the job for Friday’s showdown against England and for as long as the men’s national team remains in the competition.

How improbable is all this? Let him explain.

“I’ve done my reflecting. It’s crazy — bananas even,” Turner said. “It’s stuff you wouldn’t even think to write about, because it would be like: ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense. That’s not real.’ It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people that I share a locker room with every day and their upbringing through the game. It’s a unicorn.”

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

“I just hope it goes to show somebody someday, if they are wavering on whether or not to play the sport or thinking it’s time to do something either sports-wise or in their personal life, they can still achieve it,” Turner said.

Turner is a late-bloomer who persevered, and his journey has carried him in the past six months from the New England Revolution to Premier League leader Arsenal and, for a few weeks, a leading role in the World Cup.

He became the latest in a long line of U.S. goalkeepers who have found homes in top European leagues while climbing the national team depth chart, joining Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard.

“I coached Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, goalkeepers that have played very well [in the Premier League], and Matt can grow to that level,” said Revolution Coach Bruce Arena, a two-time U.S. World Cup boss. “Arsenal has gotten themselves a very good goalkeeper.”

A closer look at the USMNT roster

For the past year, the expectation was Turner and Zack Steffen would vie for the U.S. starting job. But when Coach Gregg Berhalter announced the roster two weeks ago, Steffen was not even on it.

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

He then decided Ethan Horvath would be best-suited to step in for Turner on short notice, if necessary. Horvath entered as a sub in the 2021 Concacaf Nations League final, saving a penalty kick, and was a late sub in Nottingham Forest’s Premier League promotion victory last spring.

With the position clarified before the World Cup, Turner made one terrific save in the Group B opener against Wales before Gareth Bale converted a penalty kick in the 82nd minute for a 1-1 draw. He tracked Bale’s shot, but because it was hit with such venom and streaking away from him, he could manage only a glancing touch.

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

For Turner, the starting assignment Monday capped a momentous year. In February, as Turner was preparing to start 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 four U.S. matches, adding to a portfolio that included eight starts in the 14 World Cup qualifiers in 2021-22. (Steffen started the other six.)

Turner has not played much at Arsenal. In league play, he has served as the backup to Aaron Ramsdale, who made the English World Cup squad.

Turner did start 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 the group and advanced to the round of 16 in March.

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

“The thing I found challenging is sometimes, as a goalkeeper, training is harder than games,” he said of the largely backup role. “In training, you see hundreds of actions every session, and you fail quite often. It’s difficult, mentally and physically. It can be hard to see how far you’ve come if you don’t have the benchmark of how it looks in a game.”

U.S. men's national team Coach Gregg Berhalter has a talented young squad with experience in top European leagues, but not in international competition. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

It was different in New England, where, after returning from a loan to Richmond, he was the primary starter from 2018 on.

“Week in, week out in New England, it didn’t really matter what I was doing in training,” he said. “I was going to play, and the games became my benchmark. So I think it’s all about how you approach the situation you’re in.”

Despite not playing regularly, Turner said he has learned immensely in an ultracompetitive environment.

Perspective: A 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 get found out pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys that gets known.”

Turner learned a lesson at one particular training session.

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

“That really set the tone for my mentality within the club and just to keep going no matter what. If you fail, that’s all right. What matters is how you react, not about the failure in itself.”

The U.S. men’s World Cup squad will face off against 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 has learned to appreciate English soccer culture.

“It’s very different than sports in the United States,” he said. “They applaud you for the little things that you might do. The little nuances of the game are appreciated. It’s like an interactive experience, and the emotions of the fans really follow closely to the emotions of the game. That’s really cool. Some sports in the U.S. are scripted. They tell you on the [video] screens what to say, whereas things in the Premier League — and in soccer — can be a bit more organic.”

England, which knows the weight of expectations, opens World Cup looking gorgeous

Even without full-time assignments, Turner strengthened his national team status. Berhalter turned to him in September for the last two World Cup tuneups. 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 was going to start against Wales.

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

“Looking at my story, I hope kids can see a pathway exists,” Turner said. “A guy from the New England Revolution, who two, three years ago people never would even believe was doing business with Arsenal, was starting the season with Arsenal.”

And now in the World Cup, too.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.