Whether they were starring for an elite youth team in the US or Canada, ensconced in an academy in South America or Europe, or working their way toward a Homegrown Player contract, by the time they hit 14 or 15, just about every Major League Soccer player was well on their way to becoming a professional.
Matt Turner was far from that fast track.
Heading into high school, Turner had never even played a game of competitive soccer. The New Jersey native only entered the sport on a lark, simply needing a way to stay in shape in the fall ahead of his basketball and baseball seasons, and he figured soccer would be more fun than cross country.
But after a tough first day of tryouts, Turner thought he’d made a mistake. He was so far behind the other freshmen that he wanted to quit. He’d find another way to stay fit for his winter and spring sports.
Thankfully for Turner, his dad convinced him to head back for Day 2. And after the only goalkeeper at the tryout went down with an injury early that practice, he volunteered to jump between the pipes.
Less than 10 years later, the 23-year-old is the starting goalkeeper for the New England Revolution — the biggest surprise on a Revs team that’s raced off to an unexpected 3-1-1 start.
“Reflecting on it, it’s definitely awesome,” Turner told MLSsoccer.com last week. “I’m just happy to be playing and reaping the rewards.”
Entering the season, Turner was an unknown even among the most ardent MLS observers. Those who knew of him probably expected him to spend his third straight year as New England’s No. 3 in 2018, more likely to play double-digit games on loan in USL than to get any run in MLS.
Brad Friedel was in that group. The first-year New England head coach and legendary US goalkeeper told Turner heading into preseason that he was third on the club’s goalkeeping depth chart behind incumbent starter Cody Cropper and longtime MLS veteran Brad Knighton.
He had a pecking order in mind, but Friedel made it clear that every player would start camp with a clean slate. If Turner outperformed Cropper and Knighton, he’d be the No. 1.
After Turner had an excellent preseason, Friedel held true to his word, surprising many around MLS when he named him the starter just hours before the club’s opener at Philadelphia. So far, his decision has paid off. Turner has allowed just five goals in five matches, is third in MLS in save percentage and fifth in saves, and recorded his second consecutive shutout in the Revs’ 4-0 win on Friday against Montreal.
“I think he’s done very well, he’s made some crucial stops in most all the games,” Friedel said last week. “We’re very happy with his performance overall so far.”
It’s still early but, considering his late start, merely reaching this point is a remarkable achievement for Turner. Though it looked like he was at the end of his soccer road several different times, he always pressed on, buoyed by talent, fortuitous circumstances and an uncanny ability to take advantage of almost every opportunity.
First came the tryout at Saint Joseph Regional High School, his reversed decision to quit and the unlikely circumstances that put him in goal. Getting a college to take a shot on him was another hurdle. He didn’t play club soccer until his junior year of high school, and he didn’t have any real Division I interest until February of his senior year, when Fairfield University offered him a roster spot following a successful trial.
Things didn’t get much easier in college. Turner sat his first two years of college, then began his first PDL season the summer before his junior year as a third-stringer with Jersey Express. But injuries to the team’s two other goalkeepers quickly thrust him into the lineup, giving him a solid run of matches before returning to school.
He carried that momentum back to Fairfield, where he won the starting job and put together a sparkling junior season. He hoped to turn pro after a solid senior year, but, once more, his options were scarce. After he wasn’t invited to the 2016 MLS Combine and wasn’t selected in the SuperDraft, he registered for his final semester at Fairfield, content to finish his degree and try his luck overseas after graduating that May.
Then, one week into classes, the Revs came calling.
“I had sent some video to the Revs, and I remember a Sunday morning, I got an email from my agent saying, ‘Hey, New England really liked your video, they want to look at you, you’re going to get a call in about five minutes,’” Turner said. “And I kind of looked around the room at my friends, and at Fairfield, you live on the beach senior year, so we’re just sitting looking over the water and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, dude, something crazy’s about to happen.”
"Something crazy" turned out to be an invite to camp in Casa Grande, Arizona. He ended up sticking around for the entire preseason, signing his first contract just before the 2016 opener.
Turner split his first two years as a pro between New England and USL club Richmond Kickers, where he played 27 times on loan in 2016 and 2017. Twenty of those matches came last year, with Turner training in New England during the week, traveling on Friday to meet Richmond, playing for the Kickers on Saturday and returning to Boston on Sunday.
Brad Friedel thinks Matt Turner's path to become the Revolution starting goalkeeper has been "remarkable" | USA Today Images
Turner’s USL experience helped “a ton,” setting the table for the strong preseason that saw him nab the starting job. Friedel has certainly been pleased with his early performances, praising how quickly he’s adapted, his receptiveness to coaching and shot-stopping ability, while pointing to his distribution as an area he needs to improve.
“He did start a little bit late, but now, even as a goalkeeper, he’s getting first-team pro games at a fairly young age and he’ll continue to get better and better,” Friedel said. “But he is an interesting story. No player has the same pathway and there’s no one defined pathway for all the players, but some are a little bit more interesting than others and his is sort of remarkable.”
Turner understands that his road to MLS was especially improbable, making him even more grateful that he’s getting an opportunity as a starter.
“It’s a lot of hard work and grinding and putting in my time, and now to just to be here playing on Saturdays is really something special,” he said. “I’ll never take that for granted.”