DOHA, Qatar — Matt Turner has grinded his way from small-college backup to U.S. men’s national team starter by pushing, nonstop, often through doubts, aches and even injuries. He pushed past mistakes, including one that landed him in SportsCenter’s Not Top 10, from Fairfield University to MLS to Arsenal. In London, he’s been pushing for starts and grappling with the pressure that pinches goalkeepers when, as Turner says, “Opportunities are few and far between.” He’d been cherishing and taking those opportunities, all four of them. He was preparing for a fifth when, during a training session on match day eve, he felt some discomfort in his groin.
It was, on one hand, only “slight” discomfort; and this, an Oct. 27 Europa League game at PSV, was exactly the type of game Turner wanted and needed to play.
On the other hand, he “could feel that something wasn't right.”
Those divergent forces tore him apart as he considered whether to keep pushing or pause. “One of the hardest things I've ever done,” Turner said Wednesday after USMNT training here in Qatar. “I actually was, like, on the border of tears. And I know that sounds a bit soft, but I've never had to do that before, I've never had to listen to my body and feel like maybe this wasn't the right move to push through something.”
But he did listen. He went to Arsenal’s medical staff. And if he hadn’t?
“If I had played,” Turner said, “[the injury] would've ended up being something that might jeopardize this.”
“This” is the World Cup, and Turner insists it wasn’t on his mind when he pulled out of that late-October training session. But it has loomed over soccer for months now, making countless injuries all the more crushing. It’s been a dream for Turner ever since 2010, when he and his buddies would watch the world’s most-watched sporting event, then trot to a local park and play the world’s most-played sport. After an improbable 12-year rise, he’s now in position to start for the U.S. at it.
But on that day in late October, it was almost ripped away. A scan the following morning revealed a groin strain. Ninety minutes of goalkeeping could have deepened the tear and sidelined Turner for weeks — just three-and-a-half weeks before the World Cup.
In the moment, though, he couldn’t have known that. All he knew was that starts had been scarce; and that the PSV game “would've played to some of my strengths — shot-stopping, defensive actions,” he said. He wanted to play, and to prove his worth.
“And that was part of the reason it was so hard for me to go out there and say I couldn't go,” Turner explained. “I've pushed through many injuries in my career, many little nicks that might've held someone else out, that's never been my M.O. So to go against everything that was ingrained in me, and look out for myself, was challenging.”
Because he did, he is here in full training, “100%” with “no limitations,” he said. He is sweating through mid-day sessions under a scorching Qatari sun.
In part because he did pull out of that PSV game and didn’t return to the field before the World Cup break, he is facing questions about a potential lack of match sharpness. But no, he said, he doesn’t think his status as a club backup will affect him come Monday, when he’ll almost certainly start in goal for the U.S. against Wales.
And yes, he has taken a bit of time to reflect on how absurd it is that a guy who didn’t start playing the sport seriously until age 16 is now on its biggest stage. “It's crazy — bananas, even,” the 28-year-old Turner said. “It's stuff that you wouldn't even think to write, because it would be like, ‘Oh, that doesn't even make sense, that's not real.’ ”
On Monday, at the USMNT’s traditional “welcome meeting,” the players watched a video that highlighted their journey to this stage, and Turner choked up a bit as he processed all that he, the team and his family had endured and conquered to get here.
But that night, he called his wife, Ashley.
“I feel a little bit selfish,” he told her.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I'm here, I'm happy, but I'm not satisfied,” Turner said.
Because that’s who he is. “I achieve things, and then it doesn't stay with me for long,” he said. “It's like, what's next? What can I continue to do? How can I keep moving forward? What can I knock down next? And I think, from years of not achieving anything really, and being in a position where I was under-recruited, underplayed, all this, and feeling unappreciated, I had to find the appreciation within myself to keep going. So that's why I continue to set goals.
“So I'm happy,” he reiterated. “But not satisfied.”