The awarding of a penalty kick can be a turning point in a game, and not usually for the goalkeeper’s team. But when Matt Turner stopped Orlando City SC’s Nani last Sunday, the momentum shift helped the Revolution take a 3-1 win, placing them a game away from the MLS Cup final.
The Revolution had a 2-1 advantage but appeared to be losing control of the contest when Nani stepped up with a chance to equalize. It was a duel between one of the league’s most experienced players — Nani, who performed for five teams, including Manchester United, in a 14-year European career before joining Orlando City, and Turner, the youngest starting goalkeeper in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Nani took several stutter steps, tempting Turner to commit, then tried a low shot to Turner’s right. Turner held his ground, dived the correct way, and made the save in the 74th minute. The Revolution went on to score a third goal, and afterward “bombed” Turner while he was being interviewed in front of the net.
“A lot of happy faces,” Turner said of the postgame celebration. “Everyone’s together and it’s been a really fun ride. There’s nothing like it in sports and it’s why you get addicted to being an athlete, the moments you live for. Every game is like a final and that’s why you see those emotions after every game. Then, it’s back on track, back-to-work attitude, on the pitch demanding the [best] from each other, and that’s what it takes.”
Turner, 26, lacks the experience of many rivals, but he has the advantage of Revolution goalkeeper coach Kevin Hitchcock, who played and coached in the Premier League for more than 25 years before joining the Revolution last year.
The preparations Hitchcock and Turner made for defending against a Nani penalty kick paid off.
“You do your homework,” Turner said. “But I’m the boss, at the end of day. You make your best guess and trust your gut.”
In the quarterfinals against New York City FC, Nani took two penalties, converting one in regulation time and missing in a shootout.
“We looked at every penalty Nani has taken the last two years,” Hitchcock said. “You look for patterns. He has missed a lot [Nani was 5 for 8 in MLS matches before Sunday]. The last two he went to the goalkeeper’s left. We discussed it and it was my opinion he would go back to the other side. Matt made his decision last minute, and went as late possible, trying to keep one foot on the goal line.”
Hitchcock wrote penalty kick tendencies on Turner’s water bottle, copying the England national team.
“I saw that and said, ‘that’s a good idea,’ easier than me standing there and picking a side for him,” Hitchcock said. “But it’s [Turner’s] own decision, if he feels he sees something. They’re massive moments in a game. It gives everyone a great lift and helps get the team over the line.”
Turner knows about defining moments and that they can be ephemeral.
Turner, a US national team candidate, was second in MLS goalkeeper of the year voting behind the Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake. But his career almost ended before it started while he was at Fairfield University in 2013. Turner made his season debut in a game after halftime with Fairfield leading, 1-0, at Iona. Current Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Jordan Scarlett launched a 40-yard shot that caromed straight up off the crossbar and, remarkably, came straight down. Turner jumped to make the catch, but bobbled the ball into the net for an own goal. Fairfield ended up losing, 2-1, and Turner never played again that year.
Not only was Turner condemned to the bench, the play made ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
“I worked so hard for an opportunity to play,” Turner said. “My first appearance, it’s a big game against our biggest rival, and for something to happen like that was brutal for my confidence and trajectory, because I wanted to be a professional. Because of that mistake, I ended up not playing the rest of the year. You can go one of two ways. Accept your fate that you’re a player that’s not going to be important to the team or make it professionally. Or work harder.
“As a goalkeeper, margins are so thin, one mistake can define your career. I read some horrible things about me online. And it took a few months to navigate it, but luckily I had my friends and family to pick me up and get me back to who I was as a player.”
Few pro teams were interested in Turner and he went undrafted, then signed with the Revolution as a free agent in March 2016. The Revolution sent Turner to the Richmond Kickers on loan to gain experience. After two seasons, Turner arrived primed to compete for a roster spot in 2018. Turner impressed new coach Brad Friedel, who had a 20-year goalkeeping career in Europe, and Turner started on Opening Day. But he again was relegated to a backup role last year, and he took on the role of team DJ, compiling a playlist for team gatherings. Turner also made certain there would be no quiet time in the Revolution locker room, earning the nickname “Story Time” for his gregarious personality.
By the second half of last season, Turner regained the starting goalkeeping role, coinciding with the Revolution’s rally under Bruce Arena. Turner finished fifth in the voting for goalkeeper of the year and earned two US national team call-ups.
When the Revolution visit the Columbus Crew Sunday (3 p.m., ABC), Turner will be playing behind the youngest back line in the conference playoffs: Andrew Farrell (29), DeJuan Jones (23), Henry Kessler (22), and Tajon Buchanan (21).
“I think when it boils down to it in any game, no matter what position you are, if you make a mistake, you find the mentality to pick yourself up and the other guys up when they’re down,” Turner said. “We’ve done that pretty well all year. We’re definitely resilient. It’s been a wild ride and it’s been fun seeing the personality of our team come out.”
Turner’s position seems set with the Revolution, but he could have a European option, thanks to acquiring a Lithuanian passport.
“It’s on my dad’s side,” Turner said. “He has a Jewish background, they had to flee Europe. It was a fun project to trace our roots and we got our passports together. I was not sure MLS was for me but it ended up working out. I always give the same answer and it’s the truth. I’m focusing on being in New England. I want to win here and get an MLS Cup. And we’ll see where it goes from there.”