Arsenal’s Matt Turner or Boro’s Zack Steffen? Handicapping the race for USMNT starting ball at the World Cup
The guy who started in goal for the majority of the US men’s national team’s qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup is now a second-stringer for his club, albeit in the world’s most powerful soccer league.
The guy who started the rest of the games, who would probably be the coach’s first choice as the USMNT’s primary keeper, has left the world’s most powerful soccer league in order to play more regularly. But he hasn’t played well and also picked up an injury.
Remember when goalkeeper was the one position you knew the Americans had covered whenever they arrived on the world stage?
Yeah, it’s not like that any more.
As the US begins its final preparation for the World Cup with a game Friday against Japan in Dusseldorf, there is no obvious path forward at goalkeeper. Matt Turner, who had a 4-2-2 record in qualifying and is widely considered the team’s best shot-stopper, has appeared only once in an Arsenal uniform since transferring from the New England Revolution. Zack Steffen, who was 3-1-2, has played six times since Manchester City for Middlesbrough leaving in the second-tier Championship, he has allowed nine goals, and missed four matches because of a knee injury.
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“Overall, I think it’s something that we just are dealing with,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter told The Sporting News. “And we’re going to give them the confidence, and we’re going to put them in the best possible position to perform well for us.”
It has been two decades since the last time there was any debate regarding which player would man the USMNT goal at a World Cup. Now, to be fair, that’ partly because of the 2018 qualifying debacle that precluded a discussion between near-the-end Tim Howard and almost-near-the-end Brad Guzan. But it’s mostly because this is a position where Americans have shined since Sylvester Stallone shut out the German squad in the second half of “Victory”.
Every eligible World Cup first-team ‘keeper since 1990 is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame: Tony Meola (1990 and 1994), Kasey Keller (1998 and 2006) and Brad Friedel (2002). Howard (2010 and 2014) did not totally retire until 2021 and is just waiting for his moment.
Meola was the undisputed starter as the US made the breakthrough to qualifying in 1990 and then hosted in 1994. Keller and Friedel both performed at an elite level for roughly a decade starting in the late 90s, with Friedel winning the job over a frustrated Keller in 2002 — the battle then was between two outstanding, proven ‘keepers performing at a high level in top leagues. Keller then took over the job in 2006 following Friedel’s international retirement. Howard proved an amazing success in 2010 and 2014.
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As the rest of American soccer has blossomed, however, with players competing at the Champions League level at nearly every position on the field, developing another high-end goalkeeper or two has proven to be elusive.
The four FIFA Under-20 World Cups from 2013-’19 produced such players as Sergino Dest, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Josh Sargent and Timothy Weah for the senior national team. But of the 10 different goalkeepers who were on those four rosters, only Steffen and San Jose’s JT Marcinkowski could be considered a regular starter in a quality league.
From his time with the U20s through his early period as the starter for mostly successful Columbus Crew teams to his transfer to Manchester City to work with the great Pep Guardiola, Steffen has been the most obvious hope for the US to produce another outstanding talent at the position. But he’s been stuck behind Brazil’s extraordinary Ederson and played only 21 times in two seasons with City.
A loan deal to Middlesbrough was arranged for this season to get Steven more playing time ahead of the World Cup, but he’s playing behind a defense yielding far too many opportunities. Middlesbrough opponents are averaging 1.8 goals against Steffen and 1.4 against his replacement. In a small sample size, neither figure is ideal.
Berhalter told reporters Steffen recently had a PRP injection in his injured knee (platelet-rich plasma therapy). He returned to the starting role for Boro in mid-September and registered a shutout after sitting out four straight matches. But his club is still struggling at the bottom of the table and the knee issue kept him out of the USMNT’s September camp.
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Turner is a late-bloomer who did not become a serious soccer player until high school and became a first-division starter in 2018, at age 24. He helped the United States win the Gold Cup last summer and wound up playing more qualifying games because of Steven’s injuries.
Turner played five games for the Revs this season before moving to Arsenal in the summer to begin training, which was a great idea because he otherwise would have had only those handful of US caps on his record since the 2021 MLS season ended. He has been on the bench watching England’s Aaron Ramsdale for most of the season.
“I had a chance to sit down with Arsenal’s goalkeeper coach and talk to him about Matt’s development, Matt’s progress,” Berhalter told TSN. “We got to look at some video and see what his starting point is and where he is now. And I think he’s made a ton of progress. I got to see training, see him defending shots against guys like [Bukayo] Sako and some of their more talent attacking players. I think he’s in good form and he’s in a decent spot. Would I like him to be playing every week in the Premier League? Yes. But that’s not the case.”
Those are the USMNT’s top two choices in goal: one player nursing an injury on a struggling second-division side, and the other a reserve player who rarely sees time.
It should help Turner to play against Japan and then Saudi Arabia four days later. But then it’s a two-month wait before the World Cup begins, and that’s enough time for one more potential twist in the race to man the net against Wales on Nov. 21.