Tyler Turner was kicking soccer balls before he took his first steps.
The next step for the 18-year-old Meriden fullback may well be playing with the United States National Team when it competes for a World Cup in 2018.
Turner moved to the Silver City from New Haven in the fourth grade, but never played in Meriden youth leagues or for city schools. After playing one season at Notre Dame-West Haven, he attended the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
He considered attending UCLA, but opted to pursue a professional career, signing a two-year contract with the Orlando City Lions of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) Pro division, considered the third tier of professional soccer in the United States behind the MLS (Major League Soccer) and the NASL (North American Soccer League).
The twist for Turner is that Orlando City has been tabbed as an MLS expansion club for 2016, thus assuring him of at least one season at the game’s top level in the United States.
OC manager Adrian Heath, a veteran of play in the world-renowned English Premier League, believes Turner can go the limit.
“We are delighted to have him,” said Heath, who himself signed a contract to play professionally at 17. “He’s a young boy who we believe has a lot of upside. He’s been with national teams, which suggests that. With us going to the MLS, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a young kid and see how he develops.”
Turner indeed played 20 games with the U.S. U17 team (2011-13) before being summoned to the U18 squad for four games last year.
He’s coped well with the changes in his life. His mother Linda, a superb soccer athlete in her own right, has guided him with love and wisdom to prepare him for the challenges of playing at such a high level. To his credit, he has followed explicitly the path she and his soccer mentors have laid out for him.
The Lions roar
Prior to Saturday’s home game against the Wilmington Hammerheads, the first-place Orlando City Lions were 13-0-3 in USL Pro this season, a solid 10 points ahead of their nearest competitors, the Richmond Kickers.
Turner focuses on what lies directly in front of him rather than the MLS and his ultimate dream of playing in the World Cup.
“The season’s going great,” he said. “We’re still undefeated. We just won the I-4 Derby, our rivalry with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.”
The series, named for the highway that links the two cities, transcends league play. The Rowdies, founded in 1975, were the first professional franchise of any kind in the Tampa area. They promptly won the NASL Soccer Bowl.
In 1978, they lost to the New York Cosmos in the championship before nearly 75,000 fans at Giants Stadium. They navigated independent waters when the original NASL disintegrated in 1985 and were there for the league’s 2008 rebirth.
OC completed the two-game sweep of its neighbor last Sunday. Including the Wilmington match, the Lions have 12 regular-season engagements left with the start of postseason looming in mid-September.
“I hope we can stay in first so we can play at home (ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista) and have our supporters around us,” Turner said.
Road to the pros
Turner’s mother Linda played soccer at American International College in Springfield. She was about to be awarded a full scholarship to Ohio State when she tore the ACL in her right knee.
She later played in co-ed leagues as did Tyler’s babysitters, so the game was all around him.
“He loved it,” Linda Turner said.
“He didn’t single out soccer until the third or fourth grade, but he played baseball and basketball right through middle school.”
He played with the Bridgeport-based South Central Premier program, which later evolved into one of Connecticut’s two U.S. Soccer Development academies. It merged with Beachside, a name the organization has retained in serving as a conduit for budding players like Tyler.
He credited his South Central coach Roland Joseph with being his mentor on and off the field.
“I started as a forward with South Central,” Turner said. “One game, our center back got injured and I went back to cover for him. We were winning. I played that one game and they never put me at forward again. Coach said if I wanted to go pro, my new life was at center back.”
Turner generally plays on the right side for OC.
At Notre Dame-West Haven, he enjoyed short but encouraging relationships with Green Knights head coach Rudy Raffone and freshman coach Omar Espinosa, but the opportunity of a lifetime came in 2013 when he was accepted at IMG.
Coping with change
IMG oversees its students’ total development, academic and athletic, infusing a balance that, according to its mission statement, “teaches the student time management, endurance, self-confidence, diligence and commitment to achievement in all arenas that help a student grow in mind and body.”
Linda and Tyler feel the program suited them well.
“I was 14, so it was pretty tough,” Tyler said. “It was made easier because I was going down to Florida with a lot of kids my age. You had people to go through it with and that made it easier. The difference was you always had your mom making your bed and everything, and now you had to do everything yourself. It was hard in a way, but easy in a way because we went through it together.”
Heath and Orlando City witnessed that Tyler had developed into a complete young man worthy of the team’s investment.
“So far he’s been very good, given the fact that IMG isn’t easy for a young boy leaving behind the comforts of home,” Heath said. “Given the fact that he was doing well there, at no stage did we feel that he was not mentally ready. He’s been under a lot of pressure. That said, his makeup is very good, and that’s an important part of it week in and week out.
“He’s coped with temptations, but he’s been an exemplary professional. Every day he comes in prepared to work and in the best of physical and mental shape he can be because he’s looking after himself on and off the field.”
Tyler acknowledged the lure of peer pressure and outside forces, but his intense determination to excel at soccer’s highest level screens out potential distractions.
“There are always temptations, but you know what your priorities are,” he said. “Do you really want it? Do you want to make it your lifestyle? Saying no has played a huge role in my life. It was the first step for better things to come. It gave me a whole foundation to build off.”
Tyler loved UCLA, but yearned to play professionally.
“Going to college, you risk a chance at playing pro,” he said. “Sure, I can go out there tomorrow, just plant wrong, tear my ACL and be done. It’s a chance I had to take. My family was supportive and so was UCLA. If I wanted to go pro, they wanted that, too. Picking to go pro was a no-brainer because this was my life goal and the team transferring to the MLS was an added bonus. Now I get to look toward that step next year.”
Heath sees great potential for Turner.
“Considering he’s played most of his career at fullback, he’s got terrific energy and can get down the field,” Heath said.
“We like our fullback to get down the field.
“He’s got terrific stamina, really good feet, he’s good in the air and he’s got good size (5-10, 165 pounds). He’s the quintessential defender, archetypal of what you’re looking for. We’re excited about him making the adjustment from schoolboy to man. He knows he’s got a lot of hard work to do. He continues to listen and, God willing, with no injuries, he has the opportunity to make himself a place in the game.”
Given his national team experience, the potential for beneficial physical and mental development and the professional experience that lies ahead, Heath sees Turner as a viable candidate for the U.S. World Cup squad in 2018.
“He’ll be 22 and that’s what they’re thinking,” he said. “That’s what he’s dreaming about. It’s obviously in the national team’s thoughts because he’s been selected in his age group to be among the best in the country.
“Going to the MLS will be another big step and we’ll see how he copes. If he does, he’ll be a lot more relevant around the country than he is at this moment.”