ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota United FC selected University of California, Santa Barbara defender Noah Billingsley with its lone pick on the first day of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.
The New Zealand international was “the one player we were hoping to get” with the 18th overall pick, technical director Mark Watson said.
The 22-year-old Billingsley made 69 collegiate appearances for the Gauchos, scoring six goals and assisting on 12 more while playing multiple positions. During his time on the West Coast, he earned 2018 All-Big West First Team, 2018 All-Far West Region Team and 2016 Big West All-Freshman Team honors. Watson said that the Loons view Billingsley’s best role as right back, but also value his versatility.
“He’s a right back who can play left back as well,” Watson said. “He’s played other positions around the field so he’s a very good soccer player, and he’s very, very versatile.”
Watson also described Billingsley as “two-footed”.
Billingsley came highly recommended by his college coach, Tim Vom Steeg, as well as current MNUFC centerback Michael Boxall, who also played for Vom Steeg at UC Santa Barbara. Billingsley’s three caps for New Zealand came in a trio of international friendlies in 2018 against India, Taiwan and Kenya that also featured Boxall.
At the international youth level, Billingsley has earned an additional 15 caps for the All Whites while logging a pair of goals.
“From his college coach to players who had played with him and knew him, we got very positive feedback both as a player and as a person,” Watson said of Billingsley.
With fullbacks Wilfried Moimbé-Tahra and Carter Manley departing over the winter, Billingsley adds needed depth to the Loons’ back line. And with Chase Gapser and Romain Métanire heading into 2020 as the first-choice pairing at fullback, the Loons should be able to ease Billingsley into the professional game.
Billingsley will take up an international roster spot, which might explain why the Loons were able to get their man in the back half of the first round.
“You’d prefer he was a domestic player,” Watson said. “But we’re really excited about him as a future Minnesota United first-team player.”
Watson added that Billingsley has the potential to come in and force the team to make roster adjustments, and that sending the defender out on loan while working to resolve his international status is another option.
Billingsley represents just the third addition for MNUFC this off-season, having acquired two additional depth pieces in winger Marlon Hairston (via trade) and goalkeeper Gregory Ranjitsingh (waivers draft). That the Loons have yet to replace attacking midfielder Darwin Quintero or 2019 MLS goalkeeper of the year Vito Mannone, with only 11 days remaining until the team begins its preseason training, has been a source of unease among fans in Minnesota.
Asked about that concern, Watson said the team is “very close on a couple players”.
Hart to replace Mannone?
“With the [transfer] windows opening in Europe, in January, it affects things,” Watson said. “But we’ve done a lot of work form the end of the season until now, and you know, there’ll be some announcements very soon.”
On Mannone specifically, Watson said the keeper has rejected an improved offer from the Loons that bettered the team’s original proposal that would have make the Italian the highest-paid keeper in MLS. While the team remains in contact with Mannone’s agent, necessity now requires the pursuit of secondary options.
Earlier Thursday, ahead of its first-round pick, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman linked Minnesota United with former England No. 1 goalkeeper Joe Hart. The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter also reported that the Loons presently hold Hart’s discovery rights.
Pressed directly about Hart, Watson offered the team’s standard non-denial.
“I’m going to leave that one [alone],” Watson said. “We don’t really speak about players that are not under contract.”