Cindy and Stu Turner faced a dilemma.
This was a Saturday morning back in early March 2018. The Turners’ oldest daughter, Kelly, was turning 30 and the long-planned birthday celebration was set for that night.
Then they got a call from their youngest child, son Matt, who had some exciting news of his own. He’d just been informed he would be starting his first professional soccer game for the New England Revolution, in goal against the Philadelphia Union. The game was set for … that night.
What to do?
“It was a tough call, but Matt had been waiting for over two years,” Cindy said.
“We went to Philly.”
Tough as it was to choose, it felt right. Who knew how many more chances Matt might get?
Having already beaten long odds and upended traditional narratives in his soccer career, that game might have been Matt’s crowning achievement. The kid who didn’t pick up the game until his late teens, the kid who didn’t start for his high school team until midway through his junior season, the kid who would receive only one Division 1 college offer, the kid who wouldn’t start for that Fairfield team until, again, his junior year, the kid who would not receive an invitation to the MLS Combine but would sign with the Revolution through invited tryouts, the kid who would spend two years shuttling from New England to Richmond, Va., to get playing time in the USL, that kid had just hit the big time.
No way his parents could miss it.
“I don’t think anyone understands that we had no idea then where this journey would go,” Cindy said. “It went on that way for years. I was always like, ‘Is he going to play, is he going to play?’ ”
Turner’s answer to that question, his journey from little-known MLS third-stringer to earning a June 2022 transfer to Premier League powerhouse Arsenal, represents one of the most remarkable, most impressive stories of the upcoming World Cup. Is he going to play? Boy, is he.
Come Monday, when the US men open their World Cup journey against Wales, Turner is a virtual lock to start in goal, his ascension to the top spot nothing short of amazing.
“It’s crazy. Bananas, even,” Turner said to reporters in Qatar. “It’s stuff that you wouldn’t even think to write about because it’d be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t even make sense. That’s not real.’
“It’s a pretty wild story compared to the people that I share the locker room with every day and their upbringing through the game. It’s a unicorn, so it’s cool.
“I just hope it goes to show somebody, someday if they’re wavering on whether or not to play the sport or thinking it’s too late to do something either sports-wise or in their personal life, that they can still achieve it.”
Turner’s story began in a small New Jersey town approximately 30 miles east of New York City. With a population that hovers around 38,000, Park Ridge is the type of place where it feels like everyone knows everyone, where all the kids play on the same teams and on the same playgrounds, where Matt, the only boy behind Kelly and Michelle, had to work extra hard just to match his sisters’ exploits (not to mention his mother’s) on the soccer and softball fields.
“He’s got older cousins, too, themselves very good athletes,” Stu recalled. “His sisters were very good athletes. He was the youngest of all of them. He just always played up in age groups, so he always had to work hard and he always did.
“But it’s still, I sort of wake up and still pinch myself, sit here and I’m watching this, I see him on TV, playing for Arsenal, asking, ‘Am I really seeing him in an Arsenal jersey?’ It really doesn’t seem real. It seems like a dream.”
From Park Ridge to college in Connecticut to truly finding his footing in Boston, anchoring the Revolution to a Supporters’ Shield in 2021, Turner just kept getting better, his natural shot-stopping ability honed and enhanced as he learned the nuances of the position.
Eventually, he earned himself a Team USA jersey and, again, fought his way to the top, backstopping a thrilling Gold Cup tournament win in the leadup to World Cup roster selection, ultimately edging out veteran Zack Steffen for the trip to Qatar.
The journey, and the feeling of wearing that red-white-and-blue crest, is one Tony Meola understands well, having been the US men’s goalkeeper for the World Cup in 1990, 1994, and 2002. But even Meola, an MLS broadcaster and longtime host of soccer programming on Sirius radio who will be covering the upcoming tournament, didn’t see the Turner story coming.
“I remember when he came into [MLS], when [then-Revolution] coach Brad Friedel gave him an opportunity, thinking, ‘Who is this Matt Turner guy?’ ” Meola said. “I was in contact with Brad, we’d worked together with some youth national teams, and he told me, ‘I’ve got a guy that’s a project, but I think he could be good.’ He hit the nail on the head.
“When I think about it, that’s when I became aware of him. I can’t say that I followed the Fairfield University schedule, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. The good thing is we are all aware of him now.”
Cindy and Stu can laugh now about the choice they had to make 4½ years ago, even if it took a little time to earn Kelly’s forgiveness for missing her party. No conflict this time around. With a Saturday evening flight booked to Qatar, Matt has long since answered their question.
He is going to play.
And it’s a heck of a story.