When Minnesota United drafted defender Noah Billingsley 18th overall in January’s SuperDraft, little was known about how much of an immediate effect the New Zealander would have on the squad or how he would fit into an already strong backline that was touted as one of the best in MLS.
Following a two-month loan with the USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights, Billingsley is back in Minnesota and ready to contribute to a Loons team that has been hampered by injuries and other hurdles for the duration of the MLS’ condensed return to play season. Reigning Defender of the Year Ike Opara is out indefinitely with an unknown ailment. Starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller will miss the remainder of the season after having hip surgery. Forward Luis Amarilla has been sidelined for several games with an ankle injury. And both of MNUFC’s defensive midfielders, Jan Gregus and Ozzie Alonso, have missed action as well: Alonso with a hamstring injury and Gregus being called away to compete for his home country of Slovakia in the UEFA Nations League.
No matter what he’s asked to do, Billingsley is ready to contribute, as soon as he completes his league-mandated 10 day quarantine.
“I haven’t had the conversation [about my role] just yet, obviously I’m pretty fresh off the plane,” said Billingsley. “If they need me to slot in, hopefully I’m able to do that. If they don’t, I’m just happy to help the team any way I can.”
While the exact level of impact the rookie will make down the stretch is yet to be seen, he has already shown he can overcome adversity and turn heads if given the opportunity.
As he got integrated with the squad in the offseason, a health scare caused Billingsley to miss the beginning of preseason training.
“I had to do my physical [in Minnesota] after everybody, just due to the date and when I was able to get in,” explained Billingsley in an exclusive interview with Zone Coverage. “I did my physical, and it turned out I had a wee heart issue, so for the first couple days of preseason I wasn’t able to train just while they were trying to figure out what it was.”
During his absence, the team went through their mandatory offseason fitness test. Once Billingsley got back on the field, he was able to complete the test on his own and make an impression, putting himself in the Loons record books.
“Fortunately, the heart thing was no problem, and I did the fitness test by myself one afternoon, which was good because I knew what time I had to try and get, and ended up 15-20 seconds ahead of the record,” recalled Billingsley. “That was a really good feeling, because obviously coming from college, you want to try and impress as many people as you can, and having the first two days off wasn’t a great look, so doing well on the fitness test was good.”
Excelling in fitness and running-related challenges is nothing new for the Kiwi.
Growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, Billingsley’s mom threw the energetic youngster in as many sports as she possibly could, from basketball and rugby to swimming and tennis to channel that energy into something productive.
It wasn’t on the court or the pitch where Billingsley found his initial niche — it was on the track — and it wasn’t long before the multi-sport athlete started making a name for himself as a runner.
“I fell in love quite early with running,” said Billingsley. “Growing up, until I was about 13 or 14, my whole plan was to be a runner. I was the national champ in New Zealand for cross country four years in a row throughout middle school and all that.”
That love for running ended up transitioning into a love for soccer. While he lacked experience, his natural talent and fitness helped to make that transition a smooth one.
Utilizing that innate skillset, Billingsley landed at Ole Football Academy in nearby Porirua. Ran by American coaches, Ole is designed to develop New Zealand prospects and bring them over to play college soccer in the states. Graduates include PSV Eindhoven’s Ryan Thomas, Kyle Adams of the Houston Dynamo and, most notably, Besitkas and USMNT forward Tyler Boyd.
In Billingsley’s case, it was UC Santa Barbara where he elected to continue his career after graduating from the academy, and it was there where he would make the transition that would kickstart his ascension into becoming a sought-after MLS prospect, moving from forward to defender after scoring just four goals combined in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
A transition that would not be possible without his inherent form and ability to run.
“It was a weird time honestly because I had never played defender in my life,” said Billingsley. “I was always a forward, so when I wasn’t scoring many goals the coach game up to me and said ‘Look, you’re fit, you can run. We’re going to put you at left wing back for this game, just because we need someone to fill in.’… It went quite well, and I quite enjoyed it. It started at wing back and then sort of moved to full back a little bit more.”
It was a good decision.
During his junior season, the new defender went on to earn All-Big West First Team and All-Far West Region honors. Despite the switch to the backline, Billingsley notched an aggressive 1.33 shots per match and found 37.5% of his shots on frame, good for second on the team.
An equally impressive senior campaign solidified the then 22-year old’s status as a top tier defensive prospect heading into January’s SuperDraft.
After being drafted and signed by the Loons, the early portion of 2020 saw its share of setbacks for Billingsley. After the heart scare, he found himself off the roster for Minnesota’s first two regular season matches. Then, after the season was halted due to COVID-19, the rookie tested positive for the disease.
Following his recovery, he found himself in a situation where depth and options off the bench would be at a premium. He was once again nowhere to be found during Minnesota’s run at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
With no time on the pitch or opportunity to get onto the gameday roster, Adrian Heath and the Loons’ front office made the decision to loan Billingsley to Vegas on August 11th, giving the defender his first real chance to play and begin his professional development on the field. It also allowed Billingsley to get back the portion of his game that sets him apart.
“After the quarantine and not playing for about six months, I went over there and was quite shocked at how much [fitness] I’d lost,” explained Billingsley. “For me, my main focus over there was trying to get back that fitness and try to get back to where I was a little bit. And I think I did that, and Vegas were awesome and gave me good game time and training over that two-month course. I was very thankful for that.”
In his limited time with the Lights, the loanee played a total of 742 minutes over nine appearances.
Now, Billingsley returns to Minnesota with not only a return to form, but a return to the mindset that has helped him earn multiple caps with the New Zealand national team and, of course, an MLS contract.
“I think it definitely reignited that fire,” he said, “to get me pushing for the top level.”