Friday, March 24 2023

DOHA, Qatar – Out of all the decisions U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter made about his 26-man roster for the World Cup, one will loom larger than others.

Well two, actually. Both the decision to make Matt Turner the No. 1 goalkeeper – while Turner was still dealing with a groin injury, no less – and the decision to leave previous No. 1 Zack Steffen off the roster for Qatar completely.

“It’s more about who we do have and the comfort level with the guys on the roster,” Berhalter said after the roster was announced earlier this month. “We felt really comfortable with Matt, with (Ethan Horvath) and (Sean Johnson), and that’s the direction we decided to go.”

Yes, but it’s so … uncertain. Steffen was a known quantity, albeit one who has struggled with injuries, a lack of playing time and some very visible blunders, while Turner is still largely untested outside of North and Central America.

Should the U.S. men get out of their group with Wales, England and Iran, Berhalter’s decision won’t be questioned. Should they not, or should a goalkeeping blunder cost them the chance to win the group, the second-guessing will be fierce.

Goalkeeper Matt TurnerGoalkeeper Matt Turner
Goalkeeper Matt Turner

Soccer fans in other countries will no doubt yawn and ask what the big deal is. Angst over goalkeepers is nothing new, even for some of the top countries. (Yes, this is a shot at England, which once had a ‘keeper nicknamed “Calamity.”)

But this is unchartered territory for the USMNT.

Unlike many other countries, where soccer is king, American kids grow up playing multiple sports, and the hand-eye coordination developed playing basketball and baseball and football has proven to be an asset in goal. For a quarter century, the Americans went from one top-notch goalkeeper to another, their line of succession more clearly defined than in some royal families. Tony Meola gave way to Brad Friedel, who gave way to Kasey Keller who gave way to Tim Howard.

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Steffen sure seemed as if he were next in that illustrious line.

He became the No. 1 goalkeeper in 2018 and maintained that role for the next three-plus seasons. He was the starter at the Concacaf League of Nations, a tournament where Berhalter used his top players, in June 2021. Steffen also started six of the 14 World Cup qualifiers — and it would have been more if not for health issues.

“We think Zack is stronger with his feet,” Berhalter said last November.

But Steffen struggled to get regular playing time in England. When he did, he made several big gaffes.

Turner, meanwhile, was solid in the eight qualifiers he started. He also made the jump from Major League Soccer, where he was Goalkeeper of the Year in 2021 after finishing second the previous season, to Arsenal.

“The way that they train and how seriously they take it was eye-opening when I first got there,” Turner said. “The training was a lot more intense, it required a lot more focus every single day. We were on the pitch for a lot longer and the things we were doing on the field were challenging me tactically, technically, mentally, physically. All of that has really helped me grow as a player.”

Aaron Ramsdale is the Gunners’ No. 1 goalkeeper. Because of this season’s compressed schedule, however, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had Turner start Europa League games. He allowed just one goal in four starts before being sidelined by the groin strain.

Arsenal was cautious with the injury, and Berhalter said he was confident Turner would be healthy in time for the World Cup. So long as that’s the case, “the lean is” for him to be the USMNT’s No. 1.

It’s still a gamble, though. Without Steffen, the No. 2 is likely to be Horvath, who plays in England’s Championship but has made just eight appearances for the USMNT. Or Johnson, who went almost 2 ½ years between appearances before starting a friendly against Uruguay in June.

“We practice making sure we push each other every single day obviously in a competitive mindset,” Johnson said.

Turner doesn’t buy that goalkeeper is now a weak spot for the Americans. The USMNT’s failure to make the World Cup and Howard’s subsequent retirement threw the established order out of whack, and a weak transfer market during COVID didn’t help matters.

But the U.S., Turner said, will be fine. Is fine.

“There’s a lot of good goalkeepers right now,” he said. “This notion that we’re in this era where there’s not good goalkeepers in the U.S. is not right.”

He’d better be right. Or Berhalter will wind up answering for it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT’s choices at goalkeeper now loom large at World Cup


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