FOXBOROUGH — Only five years ago, Matt Turner found himself as low as you could go on the Revolution depth chart. He started out as the third-string goalkeeper in 2016, and by season’s end he had regressed to No. 4. Central defender Jose Gonçalves even got into a game as keeper before Turner.
But this apparent lack of progress could have been considered positive for a player who was unrecruited out of high school and undrafted out of Fairfield University. Turner seemed an unlikely professional prospect when he wangled a tryout with the Revolution on the eve of the 2016 preseason. He had almost given up hope, but two days before the opening of camp in Casa Grande, Ariz., he received news that would determine his career path.
“I remember it was second semester of my senior year,” recalled Turner, 27. “I got a call on Sunday morning and I had to be in Foxborough the next day. I sorted everything out with my professors. And I talked with the dean of students, Dawn DeBiase, who used to cheer for the Patriots, so that gave me some confidence to pursue it.”
Turner made the drive to Foxborough, checked into a Route 1 motel, and the next day took what would be the first of many trips with his future Revolution teammates.
“I didn’t know a single person; the first time everyone was seeing me was on the bus ride to the airport,” Turner said. “And then on the airplane, it was like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ ”
Now, Turner is making his name with a record-setting Revolution team that will conclude the regular season Sunday against Inter Miami. He is considered the favorite to win the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. More remarkably, Turner has taken on a starring role for the US national team and should be on the roster if it qualifies for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
But Turner might not have come this far if he hadn’t zipped up Interstate 95 on short notice in January 2016.
“Watching video, I liked him enough that I thought it was worth bringing him in,” Revolution scouting director Remi Roy said. “He showed he was not going to embarrass himself in Arizona and, at the very least, I can train with him and he can show me if he’ll eventually develop into something.
“You can tell by Matt’s personality, he’s not a shy person, he’ll always thrive under pressure. But we didn’t know that, we didn’t know the kid. But it was like he was always part of the team.
“Sometimes it takes time for guys to get out of their shell, but goalkeepers don’t have much time. If you don’t have personality, you’re not going to make it.”
When it came time to suit up in Arizona, Turner was given the No. 40 jersey, a sign he had far to go to be considered for anything more than a practice team role. But if someone needed warming up, Turner helped out. If teammates wanted extra shooting practice, Turner volunteered to go in goal. In workouts, Turner took on challenges.
“He’s welcoming me to hit the ball harder, put the ball in corners,” Roy recalled.
Asked about his first impression of Turner, Revolution goalkeeper Brad Knighton said, “Raw. He was athletic as hell. He played baseball growing up, and you could see bits and pieces of kind of his baseball coming out.
“He was a sponge, eager to learn. He’s got good hands, but he hadn’t really kicked a soccer ball for very long, and that was the part that was going to hold him back.”
Making an impression
Turner has displayed exceptional reactions and shot-stopping ability, to go along with anticipation, positioning, and ability to read the game. When it comes to composure, he has improved, especially distributing with his feet. His baseball background emerges after he makes a diving stop, then recovers to quickly release the ball, like an infielder short-arming a throw.
At Fairfield, head coach Carl Rees and goalkeeper coach Javier Decima thought Turner could eventually be in the lineup, but needed to be eased in. Then, in Turner’s only extended action of his first two seasons, he surrendered a fluke own goal by punching a shot off the crossbar into his own net. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” showed the play several times and Turner returned to the bench.
Turner bounced back, though. The next time he was in the Fairfield net, it was as the starter in the 2014 opener. He began the season with 266 consecutive shutout minutes, going on to lead NCAA Division 1 with 13 shutouts in 20 games.
Those stats might have gained Turner attention, but in 2015 he totaled a less impressive seven shutouts in 18 games, and did not receive an invitation to the MLS scouting combine. Turner’s agent and coaches went looking for teams, calling on the Revolution first.
Rees contacted Revolution general manager Michael Burns, who had played for him at Hartwick College. Justin Thompson, a former Fairfield midfielder acting as Turner’s agent, tapped his contact with Roy, who decided to invite Turner based on a highlight video.
“I just felt he had something you couldn’t teach – natural ability,” said Roy, then the Revolution’s goalkeeper coach. “Before I even worked with him, he’s doing things that you think could eventually turn out to be really good. You get a feeling.
“From what we had seen in a short period of time, I wanted to work with him, and see what would come out of it. When you are looking for a No. 3, you’re looking for a sponge and someone that will progress really quick. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but he did.”
“It’s easy to say now, but I told [former head coach] Jay Heaps this kid will play for New England. I didn’t say national team, but he was starting at a later age than most goalkeepers, and I knew he had enough tools already, he just needed to get experience playing professionally.”
After returning from Arizona, the Revolution offered Turner a contract and the No. 30, which he continues to sport to this day. But Turner was not even suiting up on game day, as the Revolution went with Bobby Shuttleworth, Knighton (one of the best No. 2 keepers in the league), and late-season addition Cody Cropper, a former US junior national teamer who had returned from Europe.
After the 2016 season, Turner returned to Fairfield for offseason workouts, and after one session, he got a surprise while dining with Decima and former teammate Jordan Ayris.
“[Decima] told me he really felt I could be the US national team No. 1 goalkeeper some day,” Turner said. “I’ll never forget walking back with [Ayris] and he said, ‘I can’t believe he just said that to you.’
“We just chalked it off at the time. But that was the first time someone told me that, and it sort of planted a seed in my head of what I should be aiming for.”
A star for the US team
Few others were forecasting such a bright future for Turner, but he had shown enough promise for the Revolution to send him to the USL’s Richmond Kickers on loan. Turner played seven games for the Kickers in 2016 and 20 more in 2017.
And he continued impressing.
Roy’s prediction was fulfilled in 2018, when recently hired Revolution coach Brad Friedel named Turner the surprise Opening Day starter. In late 2019, Turner earned his first national team call-up, though he wouldn’t get into a game for the US team until last February.
“I’ve told several people for years now this kid has the makings to be the No. 1 for the national team,” said Knighton. “And they’re like, ‘You serious?’
“I’ve seen the kid day in and out and the rise he’s taken, and the steps he’s taken to better himself. He’s the best in MLS and he can play in Europe and I think everybody sees that now. Sky’s the limit for this kid.
“It’s crazy, his rise from where he’s been the last three years is incredible. It’s a story for ‘30 for 30.’ It is wild.”
Those working with Turner might have been foreseeing success, but until recently he was nowhere near being on the US national team radar. When Turner began his pro career in 2016, the United States appeared loaded with keepers; the national team called in eight of them, four aged 26 and under.
But Turner has been able to leapfrog to the front. And he has delivered with the US team: five successive shutouts; a 566-minute shutout streak; a record of 9-1-2 with seven clean sheets; the 2021 Gold Cup championship.
Next up for Turner are the MLS playoffs, beginning late this month. Offers from overseas clubs will likely follow, but Turner is being cautious about a move, though not because he is reluctant to prove himself once again.
“I’m at an age where I can’t go over there and develop; I have to go over there and start,” Turner said. “The differentiating factor on the national team is the fact that I am playing consistently, so to throw a wrench into that a year before the World Cup, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best option; or do we wait until after the World Cup and see what’s available?
“I definitely want to do it and I’m driven to make it happen but I don’t want to force it and want to make sure it’s the right situation for me.”