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Minnesota United has, in its brief MLS history, been a good team when it comes to getting value out of the annual SuperDraft.
Sure, their first ever selection — forward Abu Danladi — has struggled to stay on the field and live up to his potential, but three other picks make the Loons stand out: U.S. under-23 internationals Mason Toye and Hassani Dotson and senior international Chase Gasper, who’s currently part the USMNT’s January camp.
For whatever reason, United can scout college soccer well, and it seems confident in getting value out its picks. The Loons sat lower in the pecking order this year — 18th — than they were perhaps accustomed to, and chose UC Santa Barbara defender Noah Billingsley.
Let’s take a dive into Billingsley’s game and how he might fit into the 2020 version of Minnesota United:
Per his college’s media guide, the one thing Billingsley would like you to know is that he’s from New Zealand. It’s true, and he’ll occupy an international slot, filling United’s seventh and final slot.
There are only nineteen players on the roster right now, including Angelo Rodriguez (who could still depart after having his DP contract bought down) and a likely third-string goalkeeper (who could be loaned to Forward Madison or another club), so there’s no risk of the Loons not having space for Billingsley. His rookie contract is sure to be cheap as well.
One of the first things that sticks out about Billingsley is his height. He’s listed at 6’2”, which might be a slight exaggeration but puts him on the taller end of the spectrum nonetheless.
There’s a pretty clear way Minnesota could effectively deploy a taller player like him: get the ball to his head.
The Loons have frustratingly struggled on set pieces — both offensive and defensive — in the MLS era, and there’s definite room for improvement. Some of that certainly has to do with the set-piece takers and hurt feelings among them, but a weapon like this inside the box certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Take a peek at this goal Billingsley notched off a set piece for New Zealand.
This is about as clean a set-piece goal as you’ll ever see, and it’s as clean a header as Billingsley will probably have in his career. The in-swinging service came to the perfect spot, and the defenders around Billingsley didn’t do much jumping.
But take a look at his vertical on this play:
At the time when Billingsley makes contact with the ball, his torso is above any defender. That the opposition seems to barely leave the ground demands mention, but he still looks to be an aerial weapon.
Imagine the Loons having Billingsley, Michael Boxall, Ike Opara and Mason Toye as targets on a set piece. If accuracy can improve, those are some great options to go up for the ball in the box.
We’ll take a look at another highlight from that game against the Solomon Islands. This one isn’t so much an insight into the way United might deploy Billingsley as much as it is a reflection of him being a good player with the ball at his feet. At the risk of overanalyzing a couple of small plays (which goes for this entire scouting report) take a peek:
The way Billingsley receives a short pass at the start of this clip is impressive. It’s coming in cleanly enough that he doesn’t have to take a touch to control it, so he can use his first touch to send it forward to dribble down the touchline. The key part of this touch is that Billingsley waits before he shifts his balance to make his move. He allows the Solomon Islands player to close in before taking off with the ball, which causes his opponent to overcommit, letting Billingsley slip by.
For a tall player, Billingsley looks pretty good moving around traffic with the ball at his feet here. He could keep going with the ball and try to weave his way through the defense, but he (wisely) decides to dump it off. He has an easy pass to the interior, where a teammate is already facing him, but there’s a defender close by who would likely force that New Zealand player to pass back to his own defense... it wouldn’t really help. Billingsley sees that he has another option down the sideline, though, and manages to squeeze a pass in the waning gap between two criss-crossing defenders. He passes with his right foot despite moving to his left, which isn’t easy from a balance or accuracy perspective (try doing it — you’ll see).
This sequence suggests Billingsley is adept from a balance perspective, which sounds small but comes with some great benefits. It helps him to be better with the ball at his feet and opens up options as both a passer and a dribbler. If he does play at fullback, he’ll find that most opponents who attempt to close him down or press are attacking players who aren’t as experienced in one-on-one take-ons, like in the clip above. Making it past that first line of defense, of course, opens up opportunities for himself and teammates down the field.
Another benefit of that balance comes into play as a crosser. Sending an accurate pass sideways into the box while running certainly requires a little bit of balance. This example doesn’t require the same amount of balance as some crosses will, but it’s still a very nice cross that deserves mention:
This is another example of Billingsley winning a one-on-one duel, but this time he wins it by gaining separation to pass. He’s able to shift to his right, securing just enough to have space to send in a cross, which is tremendously well-hit. The spot where it lands is fantastic in this instance — analyzing accuracy requires a large sample size, so this isn’t a reliable indicator — but the trajectory of the cross is what stands out. It isn’t “whipped in,” as some crosses are, in a way that makes a someone in the box wonder why they would ever want their head to make contact with such a line drive. Rather, Billingsley floats this pass over the box, which allows the attacker to 1) see the cross coming, 2) track its path coming, 3) set himself up to head the ball at the right height, and 4) time his jump to head the ball cleanly into the goal. A lob-like cross can allow a defender to recover, sure, but it sets attackers up for success in aerial opportunities.
You might have noticed that Billingsley’s sending in a cross from the left wing in that example, but is listed by United as a right back. Technical director Mark Watson said his selection is capable of playing left back as well, calling him both “very, very versatile” and “two-footed.”
An important aspect of that versatility isn’t just his bipedality — it’s his experience playing different positions up and down the field. He didn’t begin playing as a defender with UCSB until midway through the 2018 season, his junior year, and registered 1.33 shots per game that season. He was one of the Gauchos’ more accurate attacking threats, too, putting more than a third of those on target.
Indeed, Billingsley seems to be lurking on the left wing frequently for UCSB while playing as an attacker, choosing to cut it in to keep the ball on his right foot as an inverted winger. An example:
This isn’t the clip to read very much into, because there’s a good amount of luck at work. Billingsley is smart to position himself where he has on this place, and is left entirely unmarked because he’s on the opposite side of the field as the ball. That’s a bit of a lucky break, though it’s exactly the type of lucky break that happens for players who focus on off-ball positioning. With an open shot on his dominant foot, the expectation is for Billingsley to score here. An alternate camera angle of this play reveals that the ball takes a deflection off the leg of the defender who dives at the opposite post, another lucky break. Low and at the post, with a defender there, probably isn’t the best place to shoot here. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
The Bonus Skills That Probably Won’t Be Regularly Useful
We’ll get to how Billingsley might fit into the roster in just a moment, but there are a couple fun bits of skill that came up in the scouting process that warrant mention:
We already touched on Billingsley’s balance and ability to win one-on-one situations, and it certainly made for some entertainment while he played as a striker or winger. This clip is old (2014), but shows where some of that dribbling ability comes into play:
To be clear, horizontal dribbling is not really what Minnesota United needs out of an attacker — Darwin Quintero brought that — and it’s unlikely to work reliably at an MLS level. It’s still great ball control, though, and Billingsley’s left-footed pass at the end probably could have been reached by the near-side attacker.
And finally, the flashiest skill we came upon:
It’s fantastic that Billingsley can play fairly comfortably with both feet; it’s unfair that he can also use the outside of his right foot like this. A cheeky pass turns into a chance to shoot for him, and he opts for the outside of his foot again. Twice in one play, and a goal to show for it — good stuff.
You might have noticed there’s been little discussion of a key component of Billingsley’s listed position: defending. Most of his tape shows him playing in an attacking capacity, so how he’ll hold up at fullback is something of an unknown.
His balance and one-on-one success in attacking positions could translate well. If he’s truly comfortable playing to either side, that makes him a versatile fullback, not only in the sense that he can right or left back, but that he can handle versatile attackers, too. In a one-on-one defending situation, Billingsley’s balance would hopefully allow him to shift in either direction as he needs to in order to stick with his opponent; he wouldn’t be left with broken ankles due to a change in direction and wouldn’t necessarily need to shade attackers a certain way.
His positioning also seems to be strong, which would translate well. Fullbacks on the opposite side of where the ball is face a challenge in picking who/what they mark, whether that’s an attacker or a zone — see Billingsley’s opportunistic goal above for what happens when that goes wrong. If he’s able to follow United’s defensive scheme in those situations, that sets him up for success as a fullback in the professional ranks.
In terms of finding playing time, his versatility could prove to be an asset. Similar to Hassani Dotson’s play-anywhere rookie season last year, Billingsley could find opportunities all over the field. He’ll be the obvious back-up to Romain Metanire, who misses time due to international duty with Madagascar (though that amount should be lessened in 2020). Assuming it’s Chase Gasper who starts at left back, Billingsley might well be the back-up on that side too, which would likely make him part of the bench for each match. With his size, perhaps Billingsley earns time at centerback if his defensive skills are up to par, and he has the experience to play in attacking roles as well.
The Bottom Line
Billingsley isn’t the type of pick to start right out of the gate, and that’s fine for Minnesota United — the club has had success transitioning players to the professional game so far. He’ll likely be the back-up to Metanire and Gasper for now, but he’s versatile, in experience and skill-set, so he could earn chances at other positions. How he’ll hold up as a fullback, especially against top-tier talent, is a question mark, but SuperDraft picks make a low-risk way for teams to bring in depth and develop talent, so the Loons should be safe with their selection.
What’s your take on Billingsley’s potential? How do you see him fitting into United’s squad? Let us know in the comments section below!