On a day Minnesota United added youthful defensive depth in the SuperDraft, the team's new technical director, Mark Watson, said the Loons are now seeking other options for goalkeeper after Vito Mannone rejected two offers that would make him the highest paid in MLS at his position.
Mannone made $590,000 in total compensation last season, when he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and helped a much-improved United reach the playoffs for the first time. Watson said United's first offer surpassed that of all other goalkeepers — Atlanta United keeper Brad Guzan made $740,000 — and then made an improved one after Mannone turned down the first.
"We've worked very hard and have been very aggressive in terms of getting him back," Watson said Thursday after United selected UC-Santa Barbara defender Noah Billingsley 18th overall in the MLS SuperDraft.
"At this stage, Vito has basically said he doesn't want to be back in Minnesota with what we're offering. We're still speaking with his agent, but we've had to move on and find other targets,'' Watson said. "It's at that stage where it's decision time."
Players report for physical examinations late next week and begin training in Blaine on Jan. 20. Mannone is back training with the Reading club in England's second division that loaned him to United last season, but he isn't expected to play there again. He wasn't loaned to the Loons until mid-February last season.
Watson said the team has identified "secondary targets of very good quality in mind, and we're in that phase right now."
One of those targets is famed Joe Hart, a former longtime Manchester City and England national team goalkeeper who was among the Premier League's best as recently as 2016. Since then, the 6-foot-5 Hart has played in Italy and for Premier League club Burnley. At age 32, he is seeking to revive his career.
Watson declined comment about Hart, but the Loons have had contact with him in recent days, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Last season Mannone, 31, teamed with fellow newcomers Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara to significantly improve United's defense. The Loons allowed 71 goals in 2018 and 43 last season. In addition to making the playoffs in their third MLS season, the Loons also reached the U.S. Open Cup final last season.
Watson said his team is "very close" to adding a "couple" of new players. One is believed to be Paraguayan midfielder Luis Amarilla, 24. This offseason the Loons' only notable addition so far is midfielder Marlon Hairston, who was acquired in the trade that sent star Darwin Quintero to Houston.
Last season United signed designated player Jan Gregus just before Christmas, acquired Alonso at draft time, and added Opara and Romain Metanire in late January before Mannone's February arrival.
"We feel really good," said Watson, who along with coach Adrian Heath is now responsible for the Loons' first team after a postseason front-office restructuring. "We don't want to rush signings so they're there for Day 1. We want to be sure we get the right ones."
United nearly reached a trade Thursday with Montreal for its ninth overall pick. But the Loons backed away, stayed put and took Billingsley, a 6-2 New Zealander who has played for his country's national and Under-20 teams.
At 22, Billingsley is projected as a right back behind Metanire. He also might be able to add depth at left back behind Chase Gasper, who was acquired 15th overall in last year's draft. A former forward, Billingsley transitioned to defender in his junior collegiate season.
Watson called Billingsley "the one player we were hoping to get at 18" and called him a very versatile player highly praised by his college coach. Billingsley might have gone earlier in the draft if he were not an international player.
"Good size, athletic, two good feet," Watson said. "We saw him play. We're very excited to get him with the 18th pick."
Veteran defender Michael Boxall was consulted about his countryman.
"We spoke to a bunch of people," Watson said. "All the signs are there. All the qualities are there for him to work his way into a good MLS player."