Joseph Goodman: Matt Turner’s World Cup promotion has an Alabama connection

There’s a great story about US goalie Matt Turner that explains his natural ability as a shot stopper.

Amazingly, the story revolves around three people who have strong ties to Alabama. Anyone who thinks that college football-mad Alabama has nothing to do with the World Cup in Qatar is wrong. Here it is, and it’s not obscure.

The USA will play England in the World Cup on Friday at 13:00 CT. People think the US doesn’t stand a chance in the game, but that’s not the case. USA are good enough to win.

First of all, England have never beaten the USA in a World Cup. USA beat England 1-0 in 1950 and then drew 1-1 with England in the 2010 Cup. In addition, this US team is by far the most talented men’s group that the Americans have ever put together for a World Cup. My name for the team is Young Americans – after David Bowie’s tune – because the team is the second youngest (25.2 years) in the field after Ghana (24.7).

The third reason for not counting USA against England is Turner, the USA goalkeeper. He’s a shot stopping freak. USA have a long history of strong goalies at the World Cup and Turner continues that tradition. The world may not fully respect US soccer, but everyone agrees that USA makes good goalkeepers.

That’s because in the US we grow up with so many different ball sports that require hand-eye coordination.

Turner didn’t start playing football until he was a teenager, but the natural ability was there from the start. He then played college soccer at Fairfield in Connecticut but was not drafted by Major League Soccer. At this point, Turner was signed as the fourth goaltender for New England Revolution.

The Revolution’s head coach was Jay Heaps, who is President of Birmingham Legion FC. Legion head coach Tommy Soehn was Heap’s assistant at the time. Pretty cool right? Well it gets better.

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The Revolution’s goalkeeping coach was Remi Roy, and it was Roy who received credit for finding Turner, convincing Heaps and the front office to sign him, and then doing the work that allowed Turner to expand develop into a better player. How small is this world being celebrated at the World Cup? Roy played college soccer for the University of Mobile and then coached the University of Mobile as an assistant for 10 years before making the leap to MLS.

He still owns a home in Mobile and recently returned to Mobile for an alumni event at his alma mater.

I spoke to Roy this week and he was trying to deflect all the credit for helping Turner on his way to becoming Revolution goalkeeper, signing for Arsenal and then winning the legendary job of United States goalkeeper at the World Cup start. Roy is now the Director of Scouting and Player Personnel for New England, so he must have a pretty good grasp of mining talent.

“I found him,” Roy said after about 10 minutes of backstory. “A friend of mine was his agent at the time. He didn’t know anything about goalkeepers, so he asked me to take a look at his film.”

Roy took Turner to a camp and everyone was impressed. However, Turner still had a long way to go. He could stop shots from the start, but his footwork and positioning still needed refinement.

After signing with New England, Turner was loaned out to USL’s Richmond Kickers for game experience. He trained with New England during the week and then drove to Richmond to play with the Kickers on the weekends. Turner is a grinder, and like many professional athletes from a rough Diamond background, he has always had the ability to take information from coaches and then apply it to his game.

Even now, Roy says he can see progress in Turner’s skills after leaving the Revolution for Arsenal.

“I’m just more proud of him for coming this far,” Roy said. “I’ve told many journalists in England that Matt deserves all the credit. A lot of people helped him and he had great advice, but he put in the work. He’s the one who moved up from playing in Richmond to playing in MLS.

When Turner broke through in Major League Soccer, Roy said he knew it wouldn’t be long before a European club took notice.

“He always had the raw talent,” Roy said. “He improved drastically just because he had so much natural talent.”

For his club, Turner is a replacement for Arsenal starter Aaron Ramsdale. Ramsdale is a backup for England at this World Cup. The USA and England have players who know each other well. The US squad consists of nine players who play for clubs in the Premiership or the second division EFL Championship. To get a sense of Team USA’s talent level, 15 players from premier teams are represented in leagues across Europe. Almost at home, defenders Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore play for Nashville SC in the MLS. Both are from Georgia.

Even closer to home, Birmingham’s Chris Richards, who plays for Crystal Palace in the Premiership as a defender, was left out of the final US squad for the World Cup due to injury.

The USA got off to a pretty good start to the World Cup after missing out on it completely in 2018. The Fighting Ted Lassos drew 1-1 with Wales in his first game on Monday. I watched the drama with about 750 other fans at the Good People Brewing Company in Birmingham. It was shoulder to shoulder and there were hundreds of fans outside too.

When Tim Weah gave the USA a 1-0 lead, the court erupted. Fans will be at breweries and bars across the country for Friday’s game.

Because of the draw with Wales, USA need a positive result against England. Anything but a loss. For that, Turner, the US goalkeeper, has to play well. He definitely has that in him.

“He would never underperform,” Roy said of Turner. “He was always trying to excel. He’s a game goalkeeper. He’s not a training goalkeeper. The bigger the challenge, the better he does it, and he will do it all the time.”

Roy’s connection to Alabama extends even beyond his ties to Mobile and his time with Heaps and Soehn in New England. In a twist of fate, it was Roy who was the first to suggest that ex-Birmingham Legion FC chief executive Morgan Copes call up Heaps to help build Legion from the ground up. Copes, a native of Birmingham, played for Roy at the University of Mobile.

On Friday, Copes, Heaps and hundreds of Birmingham Legion FC fans will be at Good People Brewing cheering for the Stars & Stripes.

“Matt Turner played in our league three years ago,” Heaps said. “Our league gives players everywhere these opportunities.”

The legendary story of Turner’s ability as a shotstopper is as follows. Heaps and Roy remember it well. Early in Turner’s time with New England, he was the goaltender whose job it was to warm up the team’s forwards, forwards and attacking midfielders before games by attempting to save their shots. Roy and Heaps watched final practice, and no one for New England’s first team could score against the fourth stringer, who was signed as an undrafted free agent. He blocked everything and made one impossible save after another.

After a while, the forwards asked Roy to change the goalie before the game.

“You couldn’t score against him to the extent that the players said you have to take him out of the gate because he’s destroying our confidence,” Roy said.

Matt Turner has made it from mere goalkeeper to World Cup. Hopefully England expect their mojo to have dashed the forwards’ hopes.

“He’ll be busy on Friday,” Roy said.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group and author of “We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s ‘Ultimate Team'”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.