LOS ANGELES – Training ended 10 minutes ago. The equipment managers are moving the goals off the field, packing up pinnies, and bagging up balls. Most of the players are getting in a final cool-down stretch or taking off their cleats to switch into sneakers for the bus ride back to the hotel.
Matt Turner, meanwhile, is playing two-touch with assistant coach Dave van den Bergh.
It’s a simple juggling game. Participants are required to take two touches, in the air, before passing the ball off to their opponent. No thighs allowed – feet and chest, primarily. Whoever lets the ball drop 10 times first, loses.
It’s a lighthearted game, and both Turner and van den Bergh are clearly enjoying themselves, but this is about more than fun for Turner, a 25-year-old goalkeeper intent on improving at every opportunity. This, at its core, is a chance to get touches on the ball – for Turner to improve with his feet – and that’s precisely the goal.
Turner, now a fifth-year pro, burst onto the MLS scene in 2018 and has made 50 appearances for the New England Revolution since, often turning heads with an innate shot-stopping ability. He generated buzz as an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year candidate in 2019, and earned a pair of call-ups to the U.S. National Team in recent months.
But – like every player – there are areas of Turner’s game that could use fine tuning, and he has put “being more comfortable with the ball at his feet” at the top of the list.
“It’s just getting touches on the ball, whether it’s before training, after training, extra touches playing games like two-touch, striking balls, or passing,” said Turner. “Then it’s trying to implement certain things while playing small-sided games in training, when we’re playing 11-v-11 in training, and getting more comfortable and more reps that way.”
Turner’s time with the national team has also helped tremendously with that aspect of the game. Gregg Berhalter employs a system in which the USMNT plays out of the back, meaning goalkeepers are required to have the ball at their feet on a frequent basis, and they rarely ever play the ball long. Instead, they’re tasked with finding an outlet on the ground to maintain possession.
Having spent almost 50 days in national team camp between November and January, Turner said there’s plenty for him to take from that experience back to the Revs, and every additional opportunity with the Stars and Stripes will be another chance to focus heavily on playing with his feet.
In the meantime he’s working on improving with the Revolution, and analyzing world-renowned goalkeepers like Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen to pick up any tendencies.
“I love watching ter Stegen at Barcelona because of his movement as a goalkeeper,” said Turner. “His first touch is perfect. If you think about the goalkeepers that are the best in the world with their feet, you think about Ederson and Alisson – the Brazilians. But I think for them, part of what’s so good about their game is that they can hit the ball so far. That’s a physical thing. Teams have to honor the fact that Ederson can hit the ball 100 meters over the top.
“But for ter Stegen, he’s not as powerful of a goalkeeper in terms of his kicking, but he’s so accurate with his passes. His first touch is amazing, and I think if I could model my game after anybody right now, it’d probably be him.”
While Turner has been working consistently to get better with the ball at his feet, it’s not the only area of his game he’s aiming to improve. Still relatively new to the sport – he didn’t begin playing soccer competitively until about 10 years ago – Turner knows that there are gains to be made everywhere.
And through hard work, he’s determined to make them.
“I’m not perfect everywhere else,” Turner said. “I think that’s a slippery slope when you’re like, ‘the only place I really need to work on is with the ball at my feet.’
“For me, (it’s) consistency in decision making, consistency in catching crosses – just consistency in all my actions as a goalkeeper – and shot-stopping, and communication, and being a leader. I think all of those things I can always improve and always get better on.
“Right now I’ve identified an area where I feel like I can make the most gains, but there’s still gains to be had everywhere else in my game, as well.”