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Veteran GK Vito Mannone's contagious confidence propelling Minnesota United

BLAINE, Minn. — Vito Mannone is a popular man around Minnesota United’s training ground these days.

After a recent practice, Mannone is one of the last players to leave the pitch. Engaged in a friendly match of soccer-tennis with teammates, he volleys and heads the ball over the net with a touch as skilled as any outfield player.

After securing a victory in straight sets, Mannone joined to talk about his time so far in Minnesota.

The Italian goalkeeper, currently on loan with the Loons from English Championship club Reading, has been a key player during Minnesota’s current seven-game winning streak in competitive fixtures.

During that span, United have advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup and sit 4th in the Western Conference, currently on track for their best finish in MLS. Mannone has helped hold opponents to just eight goals while the Loons have scored 27 of their own.

“It’s a great streak,” said Mannone of his club’s form. “I’ve been in other ones, but it’s great to mix the cup and the league. The cup takes you to the semifinals, which is an important stage of the cup. Obviously, MLS is something important for us to gain points as much as possible to be up there for the playoffs.”

Mannone entered Minnesota’s record books over the weekend as he completed his sixth clean sheet of the season in a wild 1-0 win over FC Dallas, a club record for shutouts. He downplays the importance of the individual honor, asserting that he and his teammates “have done nothing yet,” but admits he’s feeling plenty “confident” in his play.

“Well, you expect it,” said Loons manager Adrian Heath of his goalkeeper’s confidence. “The six clean sheets that he’s had and the penalty save over the weekend won’t have done him any harm.”

In the six months since Mannone arrived in Minnesota, he’s won the starting goalkeeper post and asserted himself as a “gamechanger,” in the words of Heath.

“My mentality has always been to be number one,” Mannone said of his role within the team. “That’s what I’m trying to do now. That’s why I’m trying to push myself every day — to try and help the team, to try and be a leader for my team.”

Mannone’s experience playing in the UEFA Champions League and as a regular starter in the Premier League has allowed him to become an impactful presence in the Loons’ locker room.

“He’s the guy that got me going when I scored my first [goal],” said striker Mason Toye, who has been on a goalscoring spree of late. “At a water break against Houston, he told me, ‘Hey go get one. I believe in you.’ Ever since then I’ve been on a roll.”

Though he has become a key player for the Loons, Mannone’s stay in Minnesota might be temporary: his loan deal from Reading is only a year long. He wouldn’t speculate on whether the move might become permanent, instead stressing the importance of his team’s current slate of games.

“Right now, I’m really focusing on [Saturday’s matchup against Real Salt Lake] and the next one, and the next one, and we carry on like that,” he explained.

No matter his future, Mannone is happy with the competition he’s facing each week in MLS.

“You’ve got tough games. From top to bottom, it’s difficult games. Every game is a difficult game,” he said. “It’s very entertaining … MLS is a good mix of players: South Americans, Americans, the Europeans who come over, big stars. It’s good to face these challenges.”

Those challenges have hardly been a match for Mannone in 2019. He’s third in the league in saves and tied for fourth in shutouts – plus he’s Minnesota’s current soccer-tennis champion.

“That’s the way I am,” he said. “I want to win everything I play. I play like a kid.”