In the first installment of the Men in Blazers’ “American States United, Presented by ESPN+” podcast — a new series checking in with top U.S. Men’s National Team players across Europe as they prepare for the World Cup in November — Rog kicks things off with a banger, sitting down for an in-depth conversation with USMNT and Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner. The sweeping interview dives deep into Matt’s incredible journey, and captures how his extremely late introduction to the sport of soccer gave him the strength and perspective required to succeed at the highest levels of the sport. From his hopes for the USMNT to his expectations for Arsenal Football Club, here are some highlights from our humanly inspiring interview with that beacon of light for late-bloomers everywhere, Bergen County Buffon, the one and only Matt Turner.
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The Early Years
Rog: "I want to go back to the beginning and talk about your introduction to soccer, because a lot of people don't know this, and it's really astonishing. You didn't start playing football seriously until you were 16 years old. For context, by 16, your U.S. teammate Tyler Adams was debuting for Red Bulls New York, Christian Pulisic had just moved to Dortmund, and you were teaching yourself how to block shots on the junior varsity team at St. Joseph Regional High School (in New Jersey)."
Matt: "I'm the type of person that's always had to earn it and teach myself along the way. So it's a defining characteristic of who I am. It feels normal to me, which I know it's completely not."
Rog: "Your first encounter with soccer came freshman year of high school, when you showed up to soccer tryouts as a way, really, of keeping in shape before basketball and baseball seasons started up. And I believe your parents had to talk you into going back for day two, much more a literal ‘Sliding Doors’ moment than most athletes can point to. Tell us what happened, and do you ever think back to that day and just think of how much you owe your mum for forcing you back?"
Matt: "I'll tell you what, Rog, there were many more of those ‘Sliding Doors’ moments throughout my soccer career. But that was definitely the first one. I was going to a new school, and it was a good way to start meeting new people, and socially to get acclimated to a new environment. Showing up, being 13-14 years old, and not having a background of playing (soccer), and all these guys, not saying they were superstars, but they had trained. They understood the game, and I just kind of showed up like, 'Oh yeah, this will be fun.' I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I had no idea how to really play the sport. The second day, to my parents' credit, they said, 'You used to always go to your sister's practices and play with the older kids. They would just throw you in goal. Why don't you just take your sister's old goalie gloves and try to be goalie on the second day?'"
Rog: "And on the second day of tryouts, your freshman goalkeeper got injured, a bit of kismet which has turned out to be fortuitous for our entire nation, really, except for that one poor kid. The coach asked if anyone wanted to go in goal, and you said, more than anything, you just wanted to stop making a fool of yourself on the field."
Matt: "That's right, I raised my hand, I took out my sister's old goalie gloves, hopped in net, and it just came naturally to me. It was like a combination of every sport I ever played, baseball for timing, basketball for seeing through the lanes, American football for the physicality of it and just this new challenge that I ended up relishing and loving and enjoying."
Rog: "Your mighty St. Joseph Green Knights, they weren't all that mighty. You ended up facing 20 to 30 shots a game through your high-school career, making 320 saves total. Exponentially more than the goalkeeper on the team stronger in possession would have faced. Really, a crash course, you had, Matt, in shot-stopping. There's your 10,000 hours right there. And you said it's that early experience which has just made you comfortable facing shot after shot after shot. That shaped you."
Matt: "Not only did I face a lot of shots in game environments in high school, but also, I didn't have any formal goalkeeping training until I joined that club team when I was 16, 17. So all I would really do at practice was just, we weren't like a team that practiced a certain way, I would just stand in goal and everyone would shoot on me all practice. I would come home filthy. My mom would be like, 'What were you doing?' I'm like, 'I'm just doing what they tell me to do.' "
Rog: "It was while watching the 2010 World Cup as a 15-year-old kid, the U.S. gloriously topping their group and reaching the Round of 16, powered by that delirious Landon Donovan goal that was heard from sea to shining sea. A goal that converted you from dilettante to fanatic. Coming back after that summer, fully focused on soccer ..."
Matt: "In my friend group, my parents' house was the closest one to our high school, so guys would just come over. We would all watch the (World Cup) games in the summertime, and once the games wrapped up, we would go down to the field. We would try to recreate things that we saw in the games, and just mess around and just have some fun."
Rog: "You'd be flinging yourself around the New Jersey backyards, just pretending to be Tim Howard?"
Matt: "Pretty much, yes. The moment of the Landon Donoval goal, the passion I felt in that moment, the scream I let out. Nothing ever made me feel quite like I felt in that moment during the World Cup, and I think that that is what ignited me to say, 'You know what? I want to go after this game and be as good as I possibly can at it.' "
Rog: "But if I were to come back in time, Matt, and said, in that garden, said 'Matt Turner, worry not, you will play in a World Cup for the United States of America, what would you have said to me?' "
Matt: "I would have laughed for sure. I feel like part of me might have believed you a little bit? But the rational (part) of me would have been like, 'Well, I'll never really get the chance because I don't play in an academy, I don't have this in my resume, I don't have that in my resume. No one's looking at me seriously to play in college. I've never even played a varsity game.’ So I had this belief inside of me, but also a very rational head on the other side that was like, OK, yes, this is your dream, and yes, you could probably do this, but here's all these hoops that you have to jump through to get there, and it's very unlikely that it will ever happen, so go to college, get your finance degree, have a backup plan."
The College Years
Rog: "Your late start in football meant that you had zero interest from college teams. You essentially had to pitch yourself to schools, sending out highlight reel video after highlight reel video, and you got into Fairfield University in Connecticut. And somehow finagled a roster spot after your dad audaciously emailed the Fairfield coach and invited him to come see you play in a tournament out on Long Island. One email, Matt; you needed that one email to change your life."
Matt: "I have so much respect for my dad, because I think he might have seen something when I was feeling, 'Eh, I don't know if I want to play. Maybe I'll just go to college and have a good time.' But I think back to that summer and the things that he saw, and the passion he saw in me of how much I loved the game. He must have been, like, 'Well, he loves it so much, why would he not want to?' … He really helped me out, emailing some colleges. And I'm sure colleges like Fairfield get thousands of emails a day from kids that want to play Division I college soccer, and they just happened to see my email and happened to be coming to that same tournament to see somebody else that same day."
Rog: "You are finally a college footballer, yet your first claim to fame as a collegiate athlete, and Matt we have to talk about it, I believe you refer to it as ..."
Matt: "... ‘The Blunder.’ (It happened during my) second year of college. My first year I was behind an absolute legend of the game, Michael O'Keefe. He played for New Zealand in the Olympics, actually, so I got to pick his brain for an entire year. We became very, very close. He was the first person to really open my eyes to, I'll call it the pressures of goalkeeping, the goalkeepers union, the intangible things that, because I was never around the game, I never really understood that. I come in my second year thinking I'll be the starter, but I'm not. But I train well enough to finally get an opportunity. At halftime of our game against Iona College, the starting goalkeeper was not having a good half. We were up 1-0, though, but he was not having a good half. I was training so well that my head coach was like, 'You know what, Matt, you're going in the game.' It was my first appearance, so I had like a 10-15 minute warmup (before being) thrown into the fire, away at Iona."
Rog: "The mighty Gaels. You're standing in net, as a player hits a long-range howitzer which finally decides to come out of the sky and hits the crossbar. The ball starts spinning and drops straight down like a net cord in tennis. You, Matt Turner, put your arms out to catch it, and it's honestly like watching a Shakespearean tragedy unfold in slow motion. Tell us what happened."
Matt: "Yeah, all of that's right. (Laughter.) I was playing really well at the time, so I felt, you know what, I'm just going to catch this, it'll be really easy. But because it passed the crossbar so closely it threw me off a little bit, hits off my big nose, slides down my chest and into the goal. … I just lay there for a good second, like, what just happened? I can not even believe that this just happened."
Rog: "The clip ran on ‘SportsCenter's Not Top 10’ for what felt like the entire year. Strangers were talking about it gleefully on Twitter. You were benched for the rest of the season. Dumped on the cross of social media. This is a horrible experience for any 19-year-old. I would say, many great humans would not have rebounded from that moment. But how did you experience it, the aftermath? How did you manage?"
Matt: "First, I just found the humor in it. I tried to find the humor in it. Because I had a really great group of guys that I was around at Fairfield. They made me feel loved for it all. The worst part of it all was that we ended up losing the game. If we ended up winning, 2-1, I probably would have bounced back a lot quicker. But it took some time, because, imagine working so hard for something, a year and a half you're working as hard as you can, and you finally have this opportunity to do something great with it, and you fail on a national, humongous scale. And now everyone's sort of laughing at you, and saying that you'll never achieve the dreams that you're setting out to. So for me, people are saying that, 'Oh, he'll never play professionally. This guy's terrible.' At first I bought into what they were saying, because I don't know any better. I'm at Fairfield. No one at Fairfield really ever goes professional. Maybe they're right, maybe I am wasting my time. But then my dad put his arm around me and said, 'Look, you have all these great things in your life right now. You're around people you love, you're doing really great in school, you love the school that you're at, and you're getting really good at soccer, believe it or not, so I would hate to see you throw it away just because one thing didn't go right.' It was that conversation that (kept me) at Fairfield in the spring of my sophomore year. Then summer rolls around and everything changed."
Rog: "Your comeback was human tenacity personified. You proceeded to win back the starting spot, lead the country in save and shutout percentages the following season. And there's something I really admire about you, Matt. It was around this time that you became a gent who started to write down his goals. When you first started writing down your goals back then, what really, realistically, was on your list?"
Matt: "The guy I mentioned before, Michael O'Keefe, we sat down together and he helped me talk through my goals, because he was somebody that went through the three-and-a-half or four-year process and had tremendous success, so I asked him to help me. … So there was short-term, which was more like, academic, or season-based. There was mid-term, which were still mostly academic-based, and then some soccer as well, like, I want to squat this much, and bench this much, and do this many chin-ups and weigh this much. Those kinds of things. And then there was long-term, which were more like, OK, I want to become the captain, win goalkeeper of the year, win a MAAC trophy. A lot of which didn't come true. But then there were, like, longshots. And (one of those) was, become a professional soccer player."
Rog: "(Despite being) as goal-oriented as you were, the road was still filled with one sucker-punch after another. You weren't invited to the MLS Combine. You weren't drafted. (You eventually made the Revs), but the learning curve into the pro game was brain-bending. You arrived from a relatively small college program, less than a decade out from first picking up the sport. Can you describe those first months adjusting to the demands, the regime of professional training in a professional league?"
Matt: "It was very, very challenging, and I will say this, there were times when I wished that they would just say, you know what, you're not good enough. Because it was mentally, physically grueling. I mean, I'm talking, if you passed me the ball from 10 yards away and asked me to pass the ball back to you first-time? I couldn't do it. No one had ever taught me how to do it. In college I got away with it because I was athletic enough to make saves and catch crosses, and I could hit the ball 60 yards ... But the (New England) goalkeeper coach at the time, Remi Roy, I love him, I'm so grateful for everything he did for me. He would (be really hard on me) and pull me off to the side during training and just run me through the paces, run me through the paces. ‘You've got to pass it like this, you gotta clean it up, you gotta clean it up.’ If it wasn't good enough, 'It's not good enough, it's not good enough.' He didn't even care, he would just keep repeating himself. It's like stuff you see in the movies. I need to find some old training clips. If you could hear the way this guy talked to me, you'd be like, what?"
Rog: "Remi was like, wax on, wax off?"
Matt: "It was like wax on, wax off, but not so kind, you know? It was more like the movie 'Whiplash'. The drummer knows he's this excellent drummer, and now he's trying to do just one simple thing, or he thinks he nails it, and the teacher says, it's not good enough."
Rog: "'Whiplash' meets 'The Karate Kid' meets 'Goal: The Movie.' "
Playing for the USMNT
Rog: "The Revs handed you a contract in 2016, yet you didn't make your MLS debut until 2018. Within two years you'd worked your way from third-string keeper to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. And your success with the Revs inevitably put you in the national team's sight."
Matt: "There's something I've never told anybody, but I want to tell you because this is just a great space. My first national team camp was in January 2020, before COVID. It was me, Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid in that camp. And so we decided to split games three ways. We were playing against Orlando City B in a closed friendly. I got the ball on the right side of the box, and I see my left back making a run out of the left side, and I go to throw it to him, and he's running, and then he looks away from me. It was Bryang Kayo. And as I go to throw it, I try to hold it back, Rog. And it goes (makes noise), straight into the goal. That was my first appearance with the national team. And I was devastated. And that's when I thought, that's it. I swear, I never really told anybody that story. I can't believe I said it out loud. It's been one of the best-kept secrets in sports. But Gregg (Berhalter) will remember it well."
Rog: "'The Blunder 2: Electric Boogaloo.' ... And you were like, that's it. I'm done. I've done myself in, in that moment."
Matt: "I said, you know what, it's been a great ride, I'm enjoying my time in New England. That's all it will ever be. ... But then the world shuts down after that. The pandemic was almost the best thing to happen to me, because people forgot about everything that happened. So it was almost like a clean slate and that's how I took it. And my first game back from the pandemic was the MLS Is Back tournament, and we beat Montreal, 1-0, and I made a great save in stoppage time to keep it 1-0, and that built my confidence (back up). My goal was to make it as hard as possible for Gregg to not call me in again. And so I got the opportunity in January of 2021 and got called in."
Rog: "Who calls you?"
Matt: "Gregg. He called me and said, ‘Let's get to work. This is a big camp, you have every opportunity here, and let's get started.’ And for me, how I felt was just, thank god he didn't bring that other thing up. (Laughter)"
Rog: "I need to ask you, in terms of the U.S. team, you're caught in somewhat of a goalkeeper quarterback controversy, with Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson, all of you getting minutes. How do you experience that from the inside? How do you fathom and experience that?"
Matt: "The way I look at it is, I have a tremendous trust in Gregg. And so whatever Gregg thinks is best for the team, I'm going to go and support that wholeheartedly. Obviously, I have my own beliefs, and I love playing, I want to play, I want to represent the country, I want to play at the World Cup. However, if Gregg were to decide it's someone else that's going to be playing the games, I would support that decision, and I would support the team. I would obviously be disappointed, I'm not going to go down without a fight, but it's just something that, at that moment, eight years of angst and ire from the fans? This isn't about me. This is about us going out there and putting out the best performance that we possibly can, so that those fans that have waited since 2014, to see our country at a World Cup again, can enjoy the experience and we can give them what they want."
Rog: "Your manager keeps talking about how he wants a keeper that can play with his feet. And apart from a blip against Canada, you look very, very, very solid with that ball at your feet. When it's said about you that you need to work on your footwork, when the ball's played back to you, does it create an extra seed of doubt in your decision-making? Or do you have the mental techniques to shut that down?"
Matt: "That's a loose narrative now, because I've gotten a lot better. I mean, if anyone's paid attention over the last 12 months they would have seen a tremendous improvement. For me, it doesn't really matter what anyone says, I know what I offer on the field now. I know my understanding of the game has been getting so, so much better, and how I can hurt other teams is getting so much better … So, for me, I understand that there's areas of improvement. That's one of them. But I'm the type of person that, in order to get the opportunities that I've gotten, I've always had to look at every part of my game as an area of improvement."
The Arsenal move
(Editor’s Note: This interview took place before Matt the start of Arsenal’s preseason.)
Rog: "I'm speaking to you on the eve of a remarkable moment in your career. You, Matt Turner, of Bergen County, are poised to move to England, to the Premier League, to Arsenal. Matt Turner, take us to where you were and what you experienced when your agent called and told you? When that became (more and more real), talk to us about your emotions."
Matt: "The first person I called was my now-wife, she was my fiance then, and I said to her, I think this is actually going to happen. Because we had talked about it being a longshot. And before we even got together, when we were just in the 'talking phase' to be millennial, I said, listen, I like you a lot, but before we jump into anything more serious, I just need to tell you these are my goals for my career. One of them is to go play in Europe. Hopefully it's the Premier League. Hopefully it's in England. If that's the case, then I'm probably going to ask you to move countries. If you're down for that, let's ride. If you're not down with that, we shouldn't even jump into this. And to her credit, she said, let's ride. So that was the first person I called when my dream came true."
Rog: "The secrets of a great relationship are in there. And that is your present and your future. But your past is also baked into this story, because the incredible thing is, you, Matt Turner, supported Arsenal as a kid from across the ocean, all because your sister played on a youth side named Arsenal in its honor. ... It is cosmic, your story. You are a proper fan, during your final years in college, first season or two with the Revs, you spent many of your weekend mornings watching games at Arsenal bars. Does this feel like a movie to you? Like 'Rookie of the Year' or something?"
Matt: "Everything leading up to this moment has been amazing and incredible, but I have always been in this business to see how far I can take it. This is obviously a step forward, and I want to go there and put forth performances that the fan Matt would be proud of."
Rog: "How are you feeling in this moment, poised on the precipice of this enormous moment of your life? Is it nerves, is it excitement, is it fear, is it all of those?"
Matt: "Everything. Everything you can feel, I'm feeling right now. Not only because of the move, but also because I'm expecting a kid very soon, so definitely feeling a lot of things, but I'm happy to feel them."
Rog: "How have Arsenal prepared you for the transition? What have they told you in the lead-up to your arrival?"
Matt: "I've had many conversations with the goalkeeper coach, and many conversations with Mikel (Arteta) about their style of play, their expectations of me off the field, the intangibles. I know they did a lot of due diligence asking around people that have interacted with me over the years about how I am as a person, in the locker room, they wanted to make sure that I was a good fit for their club. But that's really the overarching theme, it was, listen, we believe in you, we've seen what you do, we don't care what league it was in, we don't care if it's MLS, you either have it or you don't, and we believe in what you've done."
Rog: "There is a footballing common wisdom that international goalkeepers must be starters on their club teams. Are you at all worried about playing time, joining a club where you're not going to be the starting goalkeeper, with the World Cup just five months out?"
Matt: "Yeah, I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't concerned, but there's a lot of opportunities to play games in the early part of the year, whether it's cup competitions, or European competitions. So for me, the important thing is to go into preseason with the right mentality. Be a good teammate, be a good support person, but also be ready to compete and to show my teammates why these guys spent money on me to bring me here. And become as good as I possibly can, so that way, come the fall when games are coming thick and fast, the players and the coaching staff feel that they can trust me enough to put me on the field."
Rog: "The goalkeeping position, as you said, is one (where) you mature into it, (where you are still improving) deep into your 30s. Is it possible that we're not (going to see) peak Matt Turner until 2031?”
Matt: "I'd say so. I still feel young. I still feel really great. I still wake up every day eager to learn and to get better. I come into every day thinking to myself, I can learn something today. What's it going to be? How can I get a little bit better? How can I improve? So yeah, it's definitely possible. ... I'm hoping to play into my 40s."
Rog: "That's on your list of goals?"
Matt: "That's on my list of goals. My real goal is to play a professional soccer game with my son. However, if he doesn't want to play soccer, I will be OK with that. But that's the goal. If he's a 16- or 17-year-old phenom, and I can tough it out for two or three more years and just get one game, that'd be it."
Rog: "Would you advise him to be a goalkeeper?"
Rog: "You'd say, dude, we need a number nine, get on it?"
Matt: "Yeah (laughs), I would just say go score goals, go have fun. Because this is fun while I train, but in the game it's not so fun, so you go have fun out there."
Rog: "If I could take you 'Back to the Future'-style in a DeLorean, what would you tell yourself if we could go back to your freshman year of high school, that night after you'd first played football, when you didn't want to go back to practice, when you thought about quitting the squad? What would Matt Turner today say to Matt Turner back then, knowing what you do now?"
Matt: "I don't know if I would say anything, because I had enough people in my life that set me on the right path. One of my favorite parts about my whole journey is that I really lived all along the way. I never felt when I was 14, 15, 16, 'Aw, I can't do this because I'm trying to do that.' … I went out, I partied, I had fun, I was drinking in people's backyards, in the woods, by trampolines in high school, running away from the police. It was all those things, I had that childhood and I would never want to take that away from 14-year-old Matt Turner. So, I think that all those things that were really great, to have those experiences, was amazing."
Rog: "I think you just look at young Matt Turner and just say, 'Matt? Let's ride.' "
Matt: "Let's ride. (Laughs) I like that. Let's ride. I literally said that to Ash, it's so funny, she kills me for it."