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Matt Turner: I Treat Every Game Like a World Cup Final

I was 16 years old when I watched my first World Cup, in 2010. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. When Landon Donovan scored the goal against Algeria that sent us through to the knock-out rounds, I jumped and screamed at the TV. No other sport had ever made me feel like that. It made me fall in love with the game.

After that, I enjoyed playing football. The fact that I started playing at 16 and have made it as far as I have—as the goalkeeper for Arsenal (currently the top team in the English Premier League), and for the U.S. team in the upcoming World Cup—is pretty rare. It shows that anything is possible if you're willing to learn.

When the U.S. team failed to qualify in 2017, I felt so far away from the national team picture that I was more of a fan than a player. Obviously I was sad and couldn't believe that it had happened, but it ended up being the biggest opportunity for me. I didn't have experience playing at international level, but when the new coaches came in, they were willing to give anybody a chance—and I ended up being one of those "anybodies."

But I found it hard to feel like I belonged at camp in the qualifying window. I was talking to guys at some of the biggest clubs in the world, while I was playing for the New England Revolution. I didn't feel like I had the right to share the field with some of these guys. That was really challenging to overcome.

I started earning the respect of my teammates after spending more time together, training and from the way I played in games. After my transfer to Arsenal earlier this year, I felt like I came into my own. I showed more of my personality on and off the field in the last two qualifying windows in June and September. I don't think the transfer was necessary for me to feel more secure in who I was on the pitch, but it definitely helped. It made me feel like I had more credibility with those guys.

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Matt Turner did not start playing soccer until he was 16—rare for top footballers: “It shows anything is possible if you’re willing to learn.” ANP/Getty

Preparing for the World Cup

When we qualified for the World Cup, it was bittersweet for me. I was happy to have made it, but it was challenging because I wasn't there for the actual moment. I had an injury so I didn't get to play in the game, and I missed out on the euphoric feeling and celebration. In football, you work so hard and sacrifice so much to win and achieve things, so it's difficult when you don't get to reap the rewards.

Then I got a call and a message from Gregg [Berhalter], saying, "Congratulations" and, "You were a big part of it." That was so reassuring. Now I'm excited for what's to come. I think my teammates feel they can rely on me, and that's a really good feeling as a goalkeeper.

In terms of our competition, the Welsh team, who we play in the opening match, is very talented and has a lot of experience. I'm particularly looking out for their striker Kieffer Moore, who's good at scoring goals and is a big physical presence, but he's got finesse as well.

There's terrific attacking talent in the England side, too. Harry Kane (a striker who is also their team captain) is a proven goal-scorer and winger Bukayo Saka, who I play alongside for Arsenal, is extremely talented. Going against Saka in club training every day in the lead up to the tournament was challenging and fun, and we started to have a bit more banter about the World Cup as we are competing against each other.

I'm going to enjoy competing against somebody that I'm close with in the locker room. Obviously I'm going to give it my all and I'm going to want to win, but I'm not going to take a shot at him just to show everybody we're not friends. I'm here to compete in a fair way.

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Matt Turner #1 GK of the United States readies himself defending a shot from Daichi Kamada #15 of Japan during a game between Japan and USMNT at Düsseldorf Arena on September 23, 2022 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Brad Smith/Getty

How the World Cup Compares

I'm going into the World Cup with a clean sheet from my games in the Europa League. It would be nice if I could do the same in the World Cup, but clean sheets are not all that matter to me. I just want to win. Whether that's 3-2, 2-0 or 1-0, I just want to win games.

The margins are so thin in World Cup games, most of them can be decided by one goal. So, as a goalkeeper, you want to be perfect—you don't want to be the reason your team gets knocked out. Obviously perfection is unattainable, but you want to be as close to that bar as possible for every game. So it's about intense focus, understanding your opponents, knowing the game plan and then going out there and being able to execute it under the lights.

There is more pressure in the World Cup than any other game because it only happens every four years. But, at the same time, I hold myself to such high standards that I treat every game like a World Cup final. I take it very personally when a ball goes in. If I concede, I always feel like I could have done more. That's how I've coached my mind to be, to get to where I am today.

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Why the U.S. team has something to prove

We're the youngest team in the World Cup. I think that can only be an advantage. It gives us a chip on our shoulder. We want to show that we have experience amongst our youth, so we're going to go out and give it our all.

We always have something to prove as the U.S. team, when it comes to football. People always seem to count Americans out when it comes to this sport, at least the men's team. I'm not sure if that's because of the culture surrounding the sport, the way our media sometimes covers it, or the way people talk about it.

But American attitudes to football have changed massively over the course of my career. The game has grown exponentially, probably because of our past experiences in these types of tournaments. People fill up stadiums for Major League Soccer, there's strong TV coverage of the Premier League and, with so many of our players now in the Premier League and doing well, there's more and more hype about the players. The market is now there in the United States.

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Matt Turner of United States poses during the official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 portrait session at on November 15, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. Patrick Smith/FIFA/Getty

The U.S. team takes this game very seriously. We respect the players on the field, we respect the culture of the game. We understand what it means to represent our country at the World Cup, in the biggest tournament in the world.

It's important for us to do well in this World Cup because the next one is on our own soil. I hope to compete in that tournament. We will be a more experienced team in 2026; we will have gone through a World Cup and major international tournaments, and will know how to come together and get things done on a world stage.

A lot of our team fell in love with the game as a result of what happened in 2010. It burned our passion; we want to do the same in this tournament for the youth in the United States. We know that the spotlight is on us in our country, and we want to be able to give our fans and future generations something they can look back on and say, like I did at 16, "This is the moment that made me fall in love with the game."

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Goalkeeper Matt Turner of Arsenal during a match between FC Zurich and Arsenal FC in St Gallen, Switzerland, on September 8, 2022. Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Matt Turner is a goalkeeper for the Premier League club Arsenal FC and the U.S. Men's National Team. You can follow him on Instagram @headdturnerr

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek's My Turn deputy editor Katie Russell

This My Turn essay features in the latest issue of Newsweek, on stands November 25.

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