How USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner went from walk-on to the World Cup

Just before Halloween 2013, Matt Turner, a 19-year-old walk-on at Fairfield University, is playing for the first time his sophomore season. It’s a miracle he’d even made it to Division I soccer, only committing to the sport three years earlier. Last year he was so green that the open secret among the Stags was to kick the ball out of bounds or bomb it forward, anything to avoid passing back to Turner and his lubberly size 15 cleats.

But he is a natural and graceful shot-stopper. Javier Decima, Turner’s goalkeeping coach, says there is something innate about his capacity to save. Which is how, despite being the number two on the depth chart, he’s ended up on Mazella Field this day at Iona College.

In the 72nd minute, Iona midfielder Jordan Scarlett uncorks a laser from 30 yards out that caroms off the crossbar and skies upward. As the ball returns to Earth, Turner turns to face the net and reaches up to catch it. He misses.

The ball plunks off his face and into his goal.

He lays facedown, his gloved hands cradling his head. A delayed horn — as if the scorekeeper can’t believe it, either — blares. The whole ordeal lasts only seconds.

Turner fetches the ball out of the net as senior forward, Jon Clements, pats him on the butt. Turner sends the ball toward midfield and taps the crossbar to center himself. There is still a game being played (they’ll lose 2-1) and Turner knows goalkeepers need short memories. He needs to move on.

But it’s hard to move on when the world gets wind of what happened. Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett later calls it “Shakespearean tragedy [in] slow motion.” The gaffe runs on Not Top 10 on “SportsCenter” up against New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez’s Butt Fumble.

“The video goes viral, social media is running rampant, people are saying things about me that I can’t believe,” Turner says now from his home in London. “I had sacrificed so much for that opportunity and it couldn’t have gone any worse. I [went] into a really, really bad place for a while.”

Turner had left other sports behind for soccer. He’d chosen Fairfield because they’d taken a chance on his raw talent. The campus, a haven and his newfound passion seemed to sour overnight.

Before the next game, coach Carl Rees and Decima sit Turner down. They tell him he won’t play the rest of the season and they want him to focus on his mental health.

“I had a notable aura change,” Turner recalls, saying his coaches knew him well by then. “If [they] felt my aura was off, it was.”

Turner gets his transfer clearance, thinking he might start over elsewhere or quit soccer entirely. But then, his father Stu says, “He did a lot of soul-searching and came out stronger.”

“I decided that I wasn’t going to read things about me on the Internet any longer,” Turner says. “That the love I felt for the game was going to define me — not one moment.”

By early 2016, he was an MLS goalkeeper, signed by the New England Revolution. By 2021, he was named the best goalkeeper in the league and regularly the first choice for the U.S. men’s national team. In early 2022, he was shipped off to Arsenal in the English Premier League, the most competitive and revered league in global soccer. Now, for the first time in eight years, the U.S. men are back in the World Cup — and Turner is a cornerstone.

Monday, Turner started in goal for the U.S. men in their first game against Wales. Wales didn’t get a shot on goal until the 64th minute, when Turner touched a point-blank header from Tottenham’s Ben Davies over the crossbar. Fifteen minutes later, Turner nearly turned aside Gareth Bale’s game-tying penalty kick goal; microphones picked up the thud of Turner’s gloves meeting ball, albeit unsuccessfully.

“When he was needed to make a good play, he did,” Landon Donovan, all-time USMNT co-leading scorer and a Fox commentator, says of Turner. “I thought he was good today.”

Some think he hasn’t been tested enough. He hasn’t played regularly at Arsenal, behind English national team goalkeeper and wunderkind Aaron Ramsdale. But if the U.S. thrives in Qatar, Turner could join a proud legacy of American goalkeeping greats.

“I want that responsibility, to show myself on the world stage,” Turner says. “It’s the first time I’ve said that out loud: I f—ing feel I deserve to play.”

Park Ridge, N.J., Turner’s hometown, is just 25 miles from Manhattan. He was raised on baseball — “it was shortstop for the Yankees or bust” — but he’d hop in goal against his older sisters, just for fun. Stu remembers when his son, just starting out and learning to bat right-handed, couldn’t hit a Whiffle Ball to save his life.

“He’s a righty, throws righty,” Stu says. “He’s struggling and struggling. And — I don’t know, it must have been something he saw on TV — he turns around, gets up lefty and just starts whacking one after another, after another.”

“I could always watch things and do them better,” Turner says. “I could watch someone swing a golf club and swing just like them.”

Still, Turner didn’t make varsity soccer until his junior year and, by the following year at St. Joseph Regional in Montvale, he was second-team all-league. The extent of his college recruitment was two Division III coaches leaving mid-game.

While his USMNT contemporaries were playing in premier or developmental academies, Turner was applying to Fairfield and trying to get their coaches to take a flier on him. Stu sent a grainy highlight tape. Decima saw Turner at a club tournament in Massapequa and invited him to a one-day ID camp in Connecticut.

“I’m not sure I put a foot wrong all Saturday,” Turner says. “They called on Monday and offered a spot. I didn’t hesitate; I gave up baseball — my mom was crushed — my senior year to train.”

At the time, roughly 1% of U.S. men’s high school soccer players made it to Division I, according to the NCAA. Without the conventional developmental soccer and only a year and a half as a high school starter, Turner became an anomaly.

“He was quick,” Decima says. “He could judge balls, cut off crosses, come for everything. … You could see something. Athleticism? Reactions? Quick feet? You can teach technique; you can’t teach that.”

Turner spent hours in Rafferty Stadium, kicking balls into the net by himself until the lights turned off, trying to get up to speed. He spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in Brazil training at the Desportivo Brasil academy, a connection leveraged by Stu, then an executive at Unilever.

“The thing overshadowing me was a lack of experience,” Turner says. “I didn’t know how to level that playing field. In Brazil, I was about to turn 19, my first time in a professional environment, and they gave me this evaluation: ‘We think he can play professionally in his domestic country.'”

While in Brazil, Fairfield signed English goalkeeper Joe Martin to a scholarship. Turner says he’d previously been told he was the frontrunner for the starting job. “That lit a bit of a fire under me,” he says.

Martin wasn’t cleared by the NCAA until the first regular season game. Turner, named second string, scratched and clawed and finally got a shot at Iona when Martin was struggling. Then came The Blunder.

Turner, determined to accrue quality games, spent that summer leading the Premier Development League’s Jersey Express to the national semifinals. The following fall, he led all Division I goalkeepers with an .886 save percentage and 13 shutouts. Despite leaving Fairfield tied for the most clean sheets in school history, he wasn’t at the MLS Combine and went undrafted.

“[Being overlooked] was a bit of theme,” Turner says. “I reenrolled for my second semester senior year, figured I’d train hard, knock on some doors overseas and try my luck.”

A Fairfield alum and former MLS defender Justin Thompson put Turner on the radar of the New England Revolution. In 2017, the year after Turner signed, the Revs tabbed Brad Friedel, the most-capped American in English Premier League history, as their head coach. He took to Turner instantly.

“He was a tremendous shot-stopper,” Friedel says. “Not just the best that we had at the club, but I could see his quality compared to goalkeepers around the world. Three, four months into my tenure at New England, I said he should be looked at for the national team and people looked at me like I had 10 heads.”

By 2018, Friedel named Turner the starter. Working with Revolution goalkeeper coach Kevin Hitchcock, hired in 2019 after coaching backstops at West Ham, Manchester City and Fulham, Turner gained international attention with his size and athleticism, coupled with increasingly focused technical training.

From 2018 to 2021, in 104 MLS matches, Turner prevented 32.2 goals — 10 more than any other MLS goalkeeper. He was third in saves and, among goalies with 100 games played, allowed the second fewest goals.

Despite his career picking up steam, Turner didn’t make his USMNT debut until early 2021. He led the U.S. to a Gold Cup win — while nabbing the Golden Gloves, “the first individual award I ever won” — followed by the 2021 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.

Manchester United was scouting him. So were Newcastle and Arsenal. Three of the world’s most renowned clubs were wistful for the kid from northern New Jersey who once aspired to supplant Derek Jeter.

“There’s an underdog mentality coming from MLS,” says Nashville and USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman. “It’s crazy to think you can go from not playing a sport until high school, make it to such a high level … He’s the ultimate underdog story.”

In January 2020, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic, Turner met Ashley Herron “in a dive in Southie.”

Herron was a Patriots cheerleader studying business management at Harvard and running a nonprofit for breast cancer survivors. Unbeknownst to either of them, they shared a locker at Gillette Stadium.

“If COVID hadn’t happened, I don’t think we’d be in the position we’re in now as a couple,” Herron says. “The lockdown allowed us the time to get to know and make time for one another.”

Late August of last year, just off his Gold Cup heroics, Turner was in Nashville with the USMNT, El Salvador-bound for the first match of a crucial World Cup qualifying slate. Turner, despite competing with Manchester City’s Zack Steffen for the starting spot in Qatar, had become an invaluable stonewall for a team known for them: Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Friedel, Tim Howard.

Home in Boston, Herron was 10 weeks pregnant. One night after training, Turner got a frantic call: She’d had a miscarriage.

“I felt so guilty I wasn’t there,” Turner says. “She’s had my back always and I didn’t have hers. I went to sleep that night intending on telling Gregg [Berhalter] I needed to go home.”

Turner stepped out of an elevator the next day and ran into his head coach.

“He says, ‘Hey, Mattie, Zack has back spasms and can’t play, so you’re going to start,'” Turner recalls. “‘You’re ready, let’s go.'”

Turner trudged to his room in tears to FaceTime Herron. She didn’t yet know he’d planned on coming home. He insisted he needed to; she said he’d worked too hard, that he needed to play.

“I wanted to support him as best I could,” Herron says. “I wanted him wholly there [in El Salvador]. I wanted him to know that both of us were going to channel strength from God and from our little Blueberry — we always call this baby Blueberry, because it was the size of a blueberry that week.”

Herron told him they’d put their pieces back together.

“I felt lost,” Turner says. “You don’t know how to help. … I was hurting; I didn’t have the same routines, the same emotional connection to the games. My performances for the Revs really started to show that.”

Around the same time, Turner was trying to renegotiate with the Revolution. He also knew he was on an exclusive list of goalkeepers Arsenal wanted. When a transfer offer came through, per Turner, a new contract from New England and a hefty raise, in the vicinity of $900,000, was on the table. It was life-changing money at a time a new family was reeling from loss.

But there was more good news; they learned Herron was pregnant again. Months later, in February, the Arsenal transfer was finalized. But a week after signing, Turner broke his foot and missed three months before joining the North London club.

“God works in funny ways,” Turner says. “He’ll slow you down when he deems fit. I had time to sit with my wife” — they married this year — “and let emotions settle. That was when I finally had time to reflect on everything.”

Over Zoom, Herron enters the living room off-screen, holding their four-month-old, Easton. He’d spent three days in the NICU after being born with trouble breathing. Eight weeks later, a heart defect was discovered that will likely require surgery down the road, but doctors are confident he’ll have “a long, beautiful life,” Herron says. Easton needed a medical clearance and an RSV vaccination to travel to Qatar.

Turner excuses himself and tosses the phone onto the couch faceup. He melts into Herron and Easton like putty. For a moment, there are no expectations, no pressure. No one is gawking at his journey from walk-on, non-scholarship student-athlete to the English Premier League. He doesn’t have the weight of a country on his shoulders. He’s simply a new father cradling the loves of his life.

Just over the Kosciuszko Bridge in Williamsburg on November 9th, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” pulses through Brooklyn Steel’s speakers. Embossed signs boasting the U.S. men’s soccer World Cup qualifying slogan “Only forward” adorn the walls. Invite-only guests — executives, agents, media, fans, former players — await the team’s first World Cup roster reveal in eight years.

There’s raucous applause when Turner’s face appears and palpable confusion when Steffen’s doesn’t.

Steffen shut out Mexico twice in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Manchester City more than doubled the record payday for an American goalkeeper when they acquired him. Howard told ESPN in 2018 that he expected Steffen to start for “the next decade.”

But Berhalter didn’t just publicly opt for Turner — he left Steffen, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year he coached at the Columbus Crew from 2016 to 2018, off the roster in a decision he’d call “heartbreaking.”

Fresh off lighting the Empire State Building red, white and blue, Berhalter saunters on stage.

“Why did you make these decisions?” ESPN’s lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman asks.

“In some of the cases,” Berhalter says, “it’s more about what we have than what we don’t.”

What Berhalter doesn’t say is that Turner has barely been scored on in a U.S. jersey since his debut; through 21 games, his 14 clean sheets are sixth-most all-time for the U.S. men. Arsenal, ahead of the best 10-game start in Premier League history, paid up to $10 million for his services. He’s mum on Turner’s ceiling, for club and country, still being bafflingly unrealized.

But Turner had been nursing an injury that he recently told Yahoo Sports could’ve kept him out of the World Cup. (“It was a strained groin, but where it was, the chance of rupture was high,” Turner told ESPN over Zoom.) Even healthy, pundits worried that he wouldn’t be sharp because of his backup role in England. Turner has played just seven matches between friendlies and the Europa League.

Still, defenders like Zimmerman say that, because of his length and reactions, there’s “comfort when you see a shot hit from 18, 20 yards out; he can get there.”

At Fairfield, Decima’s office in the Walsh Athletic Center still houses signed Turner photos, jerseys and gloves. His NCAA Statistical Champion award still sits to the right of Decima’s desktop computer.

“He’s still the same kid, you know?” Decima says. “You text him, he gets back. You call, he picks up. We just had a residential camp, 35 goalkeepers. I ask him to get on Zoom for 10 minutes — six-hour time difference, he just had a kid. He says, ‘Send me the link, you don’t even have to ask.’

“I text him saying I appreciate him. He says: ‘I appreciate you, what you did for me when no one believed in me.’ It doesn’t happen, Turner’s story. I’m from Argentina; at 16, you’re trying to debut for the first team. If you don’t? You’re out.”

Cindy, Turner’s mother, and Stu note that it’s been nine years since Iona, their son still new to the sport compared to his foes in Qatar. It wasn’t that long ago even that their son almost took a job in General Electric’s coveted financial management leadership program before signing with New England.

“Who would have thought?” Stu says. “I went to the Liverpool game at the Emirates a couple weeks ago. We leave the stadium and stop next to a pub. We hear people screaming, chanting: ‘That’s Matt Turner!’ We’re at the stoplight going, ‘No, the kid who was trying to hit righty but was a lefty? Is this really happening?'”

Turner admits it hasn’t quite hit him yet either.

“I had to place a lot of trust in moments that don’t feel like they deserved [it],” Turner says. “‘Everything happens for a reason’ hasn’t failed me yet. I just have to trust it and try to make the most of every single day, grateful to be in the positions I’m in.”