Here We Go Again?

The USMNT Ties Canada 1-1 At Home, Brings Back the Insecurities of Failing to Qualify for World Cup 2018

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NASHVILLE — During the first half of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifier against Canada on Sunday, the enormous video screens at Nissan Stadium showed a red-cheeked home supporter as he poured beer into a quart-sized cup, reared back and proceeded to empty the entire container down his throat. All told, it took about 15 seconds, and if we’re being honest there was some talent involved here. The crowd of 43,028 gave him a rousing ovation in one of the U.S.’s hardest-partying cities—never mind that the game was still going on—and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of Weston McKennie.

Weston McKennie?

You know him. He’s the USMNT’s mayor of fun times and good vibes, one of the coolest guys on any team he’s on—even when that team is Italian powerhouse Juventus. This is often the case with American soccer players in Europe. Injuries may have cut short Oguchi Onyewu’s time at AC Milan, but he was one of the coolest guys on the team, someone who’d hang out with Ronaldinho. It’s a measure of McKennie’s surpassing coolness that even Onyewu was impressed not long ago when McKennie revealed on the former’s podcast that he has a live-in personal photographer in Turin.

The 23-year-old McKennie is a delightful guy. I know this from first-hand experience. His teammates love him. And he’s a good midfielder, enough so that Juventus paid an €18.5 million ($22.3 million) transfer fee for him last season. But there are now multiple examples that McKennie’s love for social interaction can cost his team when he should know better. During a tight Serie A race last spring, McKennie and two Juve teammates (Paulo Dybala and Arthur) were fined and suspended a game by the club after the American hosted a dinner party that broke Italy’s Covid protocols. 

And on Sunday afternoon, U.S. players were informed at a pregame team meeting that McKennie would be suspended for the Canada match that night. Coach Gregg Berhalter declined to specify the reasons, but McKennie posted on Instagram that he had violated team Covid protocols and apologized for his actions. 

“It’s not an ideal situation, because he's such an important player and important character to this team,” said the U.S.’s Tyler Adams on Sunday night. “He brings obviously what he does on the field, but even off the field in how close he brings the team together … it’s obviously very disappointing.”

The U.S. ended up tying Canada 1-1, a result that left the Yanks with just two points after their first two World Cup qualifiers and brought back painful memories of the U.S.’s failure to make it to World Cup 2018. McKennie was hardly the only figure at fault for the two dropped points at home, but his case strikes me as similar to that of the fan being cheered by the entire stadium for chugging a quart of beer on the Jumbotron for 15 seconds in the middle of the game. Yeah, beer’s great. So is being social. But there’s a time and a place, and there are priorities. 

Like, you know, the game.

Christian Pulisic looked exhausted. He had just played his first match in 23 days, after testing positive for Covid-19 three weeks ago, and he had gone the full 90 minutes after it wasn’t even certain he would play at all ahead of Sunday. But it was still hard to tell how much of his weariness was mental as he thought back to the World Cup qualifying campaign four years ago.

“We wanted to win both of these games, absolutely,” he said on Sunday night. “But this is the position we’re in now. I remember the last qualifying [campaign] losing both our first two games. So this is what it is now. We have plenty of games left to play in this qualifying, you know. It’s almost like a season. We still have a long way to go. So our heads are going to stay up.”

Brenden Aaronson had put the U.S. ahead 1-0 in the 56th minute after a terrific passing sequence capped by Antonee Robinson’s assist. The lead held for just six minutes, until Alphonso Davies broke free down the left side, whooshed past the U.S. defense and laid off to Cyle Larin for the equalizer. The crowd went silent.

Pulisic’s postgame comments indicated he thought the U.S. would have been better off trying to shut up shop after the opening goal, but he didn’t see it happening. “After we score our first goal we need to be able to win a game like that 1-0 at times,” Pulisic said. “I think whether that’s making adjustments or sometimes even having to defend a bit more, it’s tough to say. I don’t think we changed a whole lot, but we got beat, and they score and that was tough. Then in the end we just didn't have enough to get a winner.”

I asked Berhalter after the game about his thought process for waiting until the 83rd minute to bring on his first second-half subs. He said he felt among his attacking players, forward Jordan Pefok was still being somewhat effective with his physicality, while Aaronson had been solid with his counterpressing. “I can understand how it looks like we should have acted quicker, 100 percent,” Berhalter said. “In this situation, we’re looking at the performance of the guys and trying to figure out who we’re going to take off the field.”

“I remember the last qualifying [campaign] losing both our first two games. So this is what it is now. We have plenty of games left to play in this qualifying, you know. It’s almost like a season. We still have a long way to go. So our heads are going to stay up.” — Christian Pulisic

Ultimately, the U.S. had 72 percent of possession but just two shots on goal, the same as Canada. Pulisic talked about needing to find new ideas to break down Canada’s compact 5-4-1 formation. Berhalter said he wanted faster ball movement. And Adams, who just a few days ago said he wanted this to be a nine-point week, contemplated his leadership challenge over the next two days to get a crucial three points in Honduras—which would bring the U.S. to five points for the week.

“We've got to have a long look in the mirror and really establish what our goals are here,” Adams said. “Obviously, three points in Honduras is what we’re looking to do. But what do we need to do in the game to get the best out of the team and every single player? Because it’s not going to be just the starting 11 and 11 good performances. We need 16 good performances. And the subs that are coming in, how can they change the game? How can we get the best out of every single player? So we need to challenge ourselves.” 

The U.S. won’t have Gio Reyna, who’s out with a hamstring injury. Sergiño Dest (ankle sprain) may be out as well, and Berhalter said it remained to be seen if McKennie would be reinstated by Wednesday. Anything less than a win will leave Berhalter on the hot seat.

There have been a few bright spots for the U.S. this week, none more so than goalkeeper Matt Turner.

Why has the 27-year-old Turner, who plays for MLS’s New England Revolution, become a kind of American soccer folk hero? A lot of it has to do with his remarkable story. As a teenager in northern New Jersey whose main sport was baseball, Turner didn’t start playing club soccer seriously until he was 16, ancient for a youth player. The only college in any division to offer him a scholarship was Fairfield in Connecticut, where he had a solid performance his last two years but was most famous for the play that cost him his starting job as a sophomore, a terrible own-goal that was named the No. 1 play in ESPN SportsCenter’s Not Top 10 in 2013:

Turner wasn’t selected in the 2016 MLS draft, but an agent got him a tryout with New England, and he earned a contract offer. After two seasons playing on loan with the Richmond Kickers in the lower-league USL, Turner won the Revolution starting job in 2018 under then-coach Brad Friedel, one of the greatest keepers in U.S. history. And after some fits and starts that season, Turner has over the past three years become a shot-stopping phenomenon unseen in the history of MLS.

In the modern game, the goalkeeper position is about much more than just shot-stopping, personified by Germany’s Manuel Neuer and his innovation of the “sweeper keeper” role, in which he starts the attack with his passing skills and ventures far from goal to snuff out danger in the space behind his defenders’ high back line. 

“I’ve been the fan who was tweeting about the games. I’ve been that guy. I joke around saying I’m the People’s Keeper. I’ve been in the Blind Pig in New York City before it closed down, watching EPL in the mornings and national team games at night. So I’ve seen and heard all of it.” — Matt Turner

But guess what? Shot-stopping is still a really big deal, even in the modern game. And the data shows that Turner is a savant. As John Muller of 538 noted recently using data from American Soccer Analysis, Turner has saved over 25 goals more than expected going back to the start of 2018 (including the postseason), while the second-best MLS keeper over that time (Seattle’s Stefan Frei) is far behind with less than 13. 

Berhalter is an unapologetic data wonk, so much so that he even knocked me out of my old role hosting soccer panels at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference earlier this year. (Let’s be honest: They made an upgrade.) You had better believe that Berhalter knows Turner’s analytics profile. “In terms of data, when goalies outperform expected goals, it’s always something you like,” Berhalter said the day before the Canada game. “And Matt has been doing that all season long with New England Revolution, and that means he can make the big save, and that’s what you want in goalkeepers.”

Turner, for his part, says he doesn’t try to overthink his shot-stopping ability. “It’s hard for me to even describe because it always came very naturally to me,” he told me in a recent interview. “Technically speaking, I think the biggest piece would be just to make sure you’re set. Make sure your feet are on the ground when the ball’s being struck. Be brave. Make sure your head is forward. If you’re diving and you’re landing on your back, or you’re just flinging your legs out, you’re going to make fewer saves in my opinion than you would if you were [leaning] forward with your hands forward.”

His baseball history, Turner argues, played a role in his rise as a soccer shot-stopper. “From a timing perspective, and an ability to react right and left, I think baseball was huge for me,” he says. “I always say that I think some baseball outfielders would be very good goalkeepers, because you see the catches they make. They’re not afraid to throw their body around, not afraid to dive and slide. Their timing, their jump on the ball, their read is all really good.”

From a national-team perspective, though, Turner started the summer as no better than the No. 3 goalkeeper behind Zack Steffen of Manchester City and Ethan Horvath, now of Nottingham Forest. But Turner seized his opportunity during the Gold Cup. With Berhalter not calling up the U.S.’s top European-based players, Turner was magnificent, conceding only one goal across six games and being chosen the tournament’s top keeper as the U.S. won the trophy. 

When Steffen developed back spasms last week, Berhalter chose Turner to start the first World Cup qualifier in El Salvador over Horvath (who hasn’t been the first-choice keeper at Forest). Turner kept a clean sheet and made a good save on Eriq Zavaleta’s set-piece header in the second half.

Turner through out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game last month after winning the best goalkeeper award at the Gold Cup (Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

“Matt performed really well in the game,” Berhalter said on Saturday. “I was most impressed, I think, with his calmness. It wasn’t an easy environment, but he really made everything look easy. There was one play in the first half where the ball got away from him and went out for a corner kick. Other than that, I think he was flawless. He caught the balls, came out on crosses, his distribution was good. So for me, it was a good performance.”

In a one-on-one interview on Saturday in Nashville, Turner was still struggling to put his rise to World Cup-qualifying starter in perspective. “It’s crazy, absolutely,” he said. “I want to be the guy in the goal. I’ve felt like I’ve grown into it, and I’ve done well in MLS over the past four seasons. I haven’t given much of what’s happened to me this whole summer too much thought yet. I kind of leave that for the offseason. Being present and grounded right now is something I’ve found so much power in, and it’s helped me to find consistency in my game as well.”

During his whirlwind qualifying week with the USMNT, Turner took comfort from talking on the phone with his girlfriend, Ashley Herron, a consultant, nonprofit founder and former New England Patriots cheerleader; his longtime friend Vinny Macaluso (“Yeah, Vinny from Jersey,” Turner cracked); and his New England teammate and former roommate, centerback Andrew Farrell. “He’s been like my rock,” Turner explained. “If I can’t sleep and it’s the middle of the night, I can call Andrew, and he’s there for me. He keeps me going if I’m wavering in nerves and knows exactly what to say to me.”

“If I can’t sleep and it’s the middle of the night, I can call Andrew, and he’s there for me.” Matt Turner relies on his New England teammate and former roommate Andrew Farrell for support (Photo by Timothy Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

But one club teammate Turner didn’t talk to heading into Sunday’s game was Tajon Buchanan, a rising-star winger for Canada. As Turner and the U.S. prepared to try to shut down Buchanan and fellow attackers Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Junior Hoilett and Cyle Larin, Turner and Buchanan (whose New England team is running roughshod over the rest of MLS) went radio-silent with each other.

“It’s funny, Tajon and I pretty much talk almost every single day, and we sit next to each other in the locker room back with the Revs, but as soon as we leave for our national teams we pretty much don’t talk,” Turner said with a laugh. “We have a great relationship, but I think neither one of us would want to put the other one in a tough spot where you’re like, ‘Oh, so how are you guys playing?’ So I think we just sort of respect the boundary and the space, and it’s all good.”

The world works in mysterious ways, Turner thought to himself last week, but it has a way of rewarding you for your efforts over a long period of time. Turner couldn’t help but reflect on all the tryouts and trials he went on earlier in his soccer career. Some of them worked out, some didn’t, whether they were for high school, or college, or even the pros. But they helped last week when he was suddenly finding himself playing in the USMNT’s most important games with different centerbacks for the very first time: Tim Ream in El Salvador and John Brooks against Canada.

“I think the most important thing is just communication on and off the field,” Turner said. “It’s nice to get to know people. I went to so many different tryouts—you know my story. The biggest thing was I was always trying to make a team and put forth good performances with people I’ve never played with before. Learning their names quickly and how to communicate with them and how to adapt to the circumstances as quickly as possible—I think that’s definitely been a strength of mine.”

“Andrew Farrell has been like my rock. If I can’t sleep and it’s the middle of the night, I can call Andrew, and he’s there for me. He keeps me going if I’m wavering in nerves and knows exactly what to say to me.” — Matt Turner

On Sunday, Turner was one of four MLS players among the 11 starters on the U.S. team. He knows there’s a section of the USMNT fanbase that thinks no MLS players should be on the field for the Yanks in World Cup qualifiers. But he doesn’t see the point of dividing the team, nor does he feel like he’s carrying the banner for MLS. 

“Whoever goes out there and gets the job done, you just have to say they got the job done,” he said on Saturday. “It shouldn’t be hate or love. I’ve been the fan who was tweeting about the games. I’ve been that guy. I joke around saying I’m the People’s Keeper. I’ve been in the Blind Pig in New York City before it closed down, watching EPL in the mornings and national team games at night. So I’ve seen and heard all of it. I think you just have to respect everyone and their story and how it came about. Until you get as close to it as I am right now, you realize that all that Euro versus domestic stuff doesn’t even matter.”

Soon enough, Turner himself might be playing in Europe. Two years ago, he secured a European Union passport from Lithuania after finding papers owned by his paternal grandfather that showed his great-grandmother had immigrated from the Baltic country. “We didn’t even know we were Lithuanian,” he says, adding that he discovered his family had changed its name from Turnovski upon arrival at Ellis Island. 

A European Union passport makes it far easier to move to a club in Europe. “I’m highly motivated to make that happen,” Turner says. “That being said, I’m in a great situation with my club right now. I’m playing well and I’m getting called into the national team. So it’s a balance of a lot of things. You can’t force these things to happen, but I would love to go play in the Premier League or a high level in the [English] Championship.”

By Sunday night, it was becoming clear that the No. 1 U.S. goalkeeper job is now Turner’s to lose. He was solid for the second straight game and made a terrific save on Larin’s shot in the first half after Dest had blundered in defense. (There was nothing Turner could have done on Larin’s goal later.) There’s a sense of calm when you have Turner in goal; even when Canada threatened, you felt like he would be able to make the save. 

Even if Steffen can get some games for Man City in cup competition over the next month, it’s hard to imagine him taking the No. 1 spot back from Turner next month.

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