It seems fitting that Matt Turner would find his soccer home in New England, since the region has witnessed more than its share of players who, like Turner, have emerged from unlikely circumstances.
The 25-year-old New England Revolution goalkeeper has had to fight for his place in the starting lineup since 2018. Since May, he’s also been a central component in the team’s season turnaround, and will be counted on during the crucial upcoming stretch of games as New England fights for a playoff spot. Yet his path to this point was anything but ordinary.
He first signed with the club in 2016 after going undrafted. Both before and after that moment, he’s been an example of the quintessential underdog story. It began with a late start.
“I was 16 when I really got into soccer,’’ Turner explained in a recent interview. Most professional goalkeepers would have been in training for years before that.
“I played when I was really young,’’ Turner explained. “Then I just kind of threw it to the side. My sisters played, so I was always kind of around it, but I was playing football, basketball, baseball.’’
After picking up the game again when he reached high school, Turner only made the team as a goalkeeper, admitting that he was nowhere near the level of his peers in both technical and tactical abilities. Still, his love of the sport continued to grow, inspired mostly by soccer’s biggest event.
“After the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa I really fell in love with the game,’’ said Turner. “I was just dumbfounded by how much passion there is. And mind you, I’m a huge sports guy. I’ve been around some pretty crazy atmospheres in sports, but I’ve never seen something similar to soccer. It’s something I just felt like I really want to be a part of that, and I think I have the tools to be a part of that. And around 16, halfway through my junior year of high school, is when I joined my first club team and started playing year-round.’’
In college, Turner played only two games in his first two years at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Once again, he was a late-blooming success, emerging in his third year.
“My junior year was kind of my breakout season, for lack of a better expression,’’ Turner recalled. “We just had a pretty special season.’’
It was also the first inkling he had that the world of professional soccer might be within his grasp.
“That was kind of my first moment where I thought, ‘I think I might be able to do this,’ and I loved soccer, wanted to be a part of it, and thought I was good enough,’’ said Turner. “So I passed up on an internship opportunity and just decided that summer before my senior year that I was going to dedicate more time to soccer.’’
It led to a contract with the Revolution, but another difficult road. As part of his development, Turner was loaned out to the Richmond Kickers in USL League One for two seasons to gain more experience. The only catch was that instead of living and training full-time with Richmond, he was expected back in New England each week to train with his MLS team.
“It wasn’t easy at all times, because I was doing a ton of traveling since I was training with New England during the week,’’ said Turner. “I would fly wherever Richmond was playing, then turn around and fly back for training again on Monday.’’
“It was a pretty tough year,’’ Turner said of his time on loan. “But mentally I was locked in because I knew it was going to pay off. And I knew getting that experience was really going to help me in the future.’’
In 2018, he proved he could handle the next level. Under then-coach Brad Friedel, Turner surprised by winning the starting job in goal. But after a strong start to the season, he — like the Revolution as a team — struggled in the second half of the season. By the start of the 2019 season, Turner had lost his spot in the lineup.
Opportunity knocked again after Friedel was fired in May and the Revolution were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Interim head coach Mike Lapper named Turner as his starting goalie. Lapper’s faith was rewarded, as Turner has been instrumental in the Revolution’s season-saving turnaround.
Now under new coach Bruce Arena, Turner has become a fixture in the team’s weekly setup.
For all of the star performances turned in by midfielder Carles Gil and newly-signed forward Gustavo Bou, it’s been the steady, calming presence of Turner that’s been as important as anything else in the Revolution’s season turnaround. New England rode a record-tying unbeaten run back into playoff contention from May through July, and has shown a rediscovered resilience on the road.
“This is one of the more closely-knit group of guys in a professional locker room that I’ve been around,’’ Turner said. The Revolution are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference (the top seven teams make the playoffs). A razor-thin margin of just 3 points separates the three teams in fifth, sixth, and seventh place.
Turner’s performances haven’t gone unnoticed. The team recently gave him a contract extension, which theoretically should’ve been a nice moment of validation for a player who’s had to constantly prove himself since high school. But for the moment, he’s focused only on New England’s playoff chase.
“Maybe at the end of the season I’ll have a look back and be like, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool,’ but I’m more concerned about whatever’s coming next for us and whoever our next opponent is,’’ Turner said.
With just seven games remaining, New England’s late-blooming goalkeeper appears to have the right mentality for the team’s late-season playoff push.