Matt Turner - New England Revolution - October 19, 2020
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

US men's national team "dream" nears for goalkeeper Matt Turner after unlikely rise to the top

It’s not a sure thing just yet -- and he’s not one to count on it until the opening whistle actually blows at Exploria Stadium come Sunday -- but given the experience and makeup of Gregg Berhalter’s 25-player squad, Matt Turner appears to be days away from his US men’s national team debut.

The mere statement itself is a testament to the New England Revolution goalkeeper’s startling professional trajectory. It is a tribute to Turner’s achievements, rather than a slight, to point out the inescapable fact that the early stages of his career contained little to suggest he’d be here now.

“The opportunity that presents itself, I’m so grateful for it. Who knows?” pondered Turner in a Monday media call. “Hopefully my name is on that XI sheet when the time comes this Sunday against Trinidad and Tobago. But I've worked really hard for a chance and an opportunity. And I've had lots of ups and downs in my career.”

Turner was the top U.S. goalkeeper in MLS last season, based on the voting that placed him second to the Philadelphia Union’s Jamaican international ‘keeper Andre Blake in the Goalkeeper of the Year award race in his second full year as the Revs’ unquestioned No. 1. He saw nary a single minute of MLS action in his first two seasons in New England, however, necessitating a series of loan stints with USL League One side Richmond Kickers.

He didn’t even get picked in the 2016 SuperDraft and had to go on trial to earn an entry-level rookie contract with the Revs. Perhaps that’s no great surprise given his solid but hardly prominent college career at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he logged an exceedingly modest 48 minutes and 45 seconds total over his first two NCAA seasons. At no point in his amateur days was he ever part of the U.S. youth national teams.

Notably, his Revs rise owes much to former head coach Brad Friedel, whose tenure was disappointing overall but left a valuable legacy in the position where he himself once excelled for the USMNT.

“[Friedel’s] staff completely opened the door for a kid who might have been seen by the previous coaching staff as some no-name kid from a no-name college that we took a chance on,” recalled Turner on Monday, giving thanks for that “new perspective on who I was as a player” that opened the door for him to seize the club’s starting role during the 2018 preseason.

“It was a really good opportunity for me to get in front of people who didn't know anything about my background, and show them what I could do.”

Now here he is at age 26 with a freshly-inked new Revs contract that delivered security and reward earlier this month, not to mention a Lithuanian passport -- the byproduct of a family discovery that his great-grandmother had fled that country during World War II -- in hand should European opportunities beckon. And maybe a bigger place in Berhalter’s plans as he seeks top gear in his third USMNT camp.

“Matt certainly has improved. I think it's night and day compared to him last January camp,” said Berhalter on Monday. “He had the reflexes last January, but now his whole game is improved and you can see he's gained confidence and that whole season behind him has really improved him, and he's looking sharp.”

The USMNT’s current system asks a lot of its ‘keepers in terms of distribution with feet and building out of the back – the latest piece in the puzzle Turner has been constructing since 2010, when Tim Howard's heroics at the World Cup inspired him to throw himself headlong into the sport. Last fall he revealed to American Soccer Now's Brian Sciaretta that he didn't even take goal kicks for his teams until he was 18.

“In the games he's made some big saves and that's really a hallmark of what we know Matt to be able to do is, the big save ability,” added Berhalter. “And then he needs to continue to work with his feet, continue to improve on buildup from the goalkeeper, but he's doing a great job. We're really happy with him.”

The player himself emphasizes the mental and psychological growth that’s paced his acclimatization to this demanding environment.

“I didn't try to do too much [this January]; I didn't try to do too little, either,” said Turner. “I just felt more like myself and I feel really a lot more comfortable with the style of play and those small details that are big at this level, that make a big difference. So I'm excited to keep growing with this group.

“If you're looking too far in the future,” he explained, “you're going to find yourself running into some problems, because you can create tons of scenarios in your head that might affect you that that never even happen. And if you focus too much on the past, you can let that affect you. So every day just focusing on trying to be present, every rep trying to be present. And I think it's gone well for me so far.”

Whoever gets Berhalter’s nod in goal will be notching their first senior international cap, with the San Jose Earthquakes’ JT Marcinkowski and Philadelphia's Matt Freese also in the mix.

“You hear people talk about this spoken-but-unspoken goalkeepers union. JT and Matt, they're both great goalkeepers, homegrown guys, they've been around the game and the youth national teams a ton, and they definitely have a lot to offer. The competition has been great every single day, holding each other to high standards, making sure that the quality is there,” said Turner. “Whoever steps out on the field on Sunday, I know that the other two guys, myself included for them, would be extremely happy for them.”

When it comes to the meaningful matches ahead this year, the New Jersey native still has several talented bodies ahead of him on the U.S. depth chart. But right here and now, just being in that conversation is an achievement for this late bloomer.

“[I’m] making sure that I show the coaching staff, if that opportunity presents itself, that I'm somebody that they can rely on at the international stage,” he said. “Honestly, after that is when I'll be able to reflect on my journey and reflect on how much it really has meant to me to become a player for this US men’s national team, if the time comes.

“The reason I got into soccer in the first place was because of the [USMNT’s] World Cup run in 2010. It's something that's always been so special to me, and it's what ignited me to become passionate about this game. And 11 years later, to be able to have the chance, even, to wear the crest on on a match day is nothing short of a dream come true.”