Vito Mannone is one of the nice guys, so there are only good vibes in announcing that the Minnesota United goalkeeper has been named the 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year after an outstanding season with the Loons.
The 31-year-old Italian was a revelation after arriving on loan from Reading in England’s Football League Championship, the latest stop in a career which has seen him play for Arsenal in the Champions League and spearhead several big seasons for Sunderland in the Premier League.
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Mannone’s 73 saves from inside the box and 136 total saves were both third in MLS as was his 11 clean sheets in a season which saw the Loons claim their first MLS playoff spot in three seasons and make a run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. He’s just the second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year to hail from outside of a CONCACAF nation.
PST had a chance to speak to Mannone for a wide-ranging conversation on not just his incredible season, but his feelings of responsibility to be a contributor to his community and the gratitude he feels to be a professional athlete. From emotionally crediting his parents to a funny story about former Arsenal teammate and current LAFC star Carlos Vela, Mannone is an absolute joy in conversation.
ProSoccerTalk: Vito, congratulations on a wonderful season. First things first, what does the award mean to you?
Vito Mannone: “I didn’t expect it in a way, but it’s an incredible feeling. You always work so hard to achieve something like this and it’s an award that rewards me, the work I put in throughout my career. It’s a special one, special moment.”
ProSoccerTalk: There are a lot of worthy on-field topics, and we’ll get to them, but I want to talk about your focus off the field. I read someone on Twitter call you “the nicest guy in football.” You clearly care about how you treat people and your purpose.
VM: “I grew up with special parents and they ingrained in me great values in general in my life. I learned everything from my dad and my mom. They were special people, not just to me but to everyone. That’s how I was raised. I always cared about other people, them first.
“The football platform gives you the chance to give back to people. Anywhere I go I try to give my best to my fans and people who support you in your job. It’s fantastic, you don’t get that in many other jobs.
We are very very lucky to have thousands of people working hard during the week to come and watch you and support you in good and bad moments. The minimum required is to give something back to them.
“Outside of football it’s something I want to do. It fills my heart but at the same time people will look at you and appreciate what you do for them. It extends in a way to connect to poor people, people with health problems. When I go out to hospitals, I always feel I’m very lucky and in a privileged situation.”
PST: It’s interesting that you mention that because for all of your accomplishments — Champions League with Arsenal, season-saving saves with Sunderland — I remember being particularly touched by something you did off the field, as Jermain Defoe and you spent time with ailing Bradley Lowery while he battled cancer, raising money and awareness.
VM: “We are very lucky and I always see myself like any of these kids, I put myself in their shoes because I was a kid full of dreams and I’m lucky that I made it but these kids or ones with problems or fighting really hard to be alive, I know a kid is full of dreams and loves football like we do. That’s why I really want to connect with them.
“Bradley was a prime example. He did so much in general for people who got to know his story. You could see this guy with a smile who would change your day, and you realize your small problems in life are nothing compared to one of these kids.”
PST: “I want to go a little deeper because I’m someone whose paid a lot of attention to the Northeast of England and, don’t get mad, but I grew up watching Newcastle. When you see something like Bradley’s story and the Sunderland connection, it makes it so much bigger than football. It brings a sense of community that extends beyond the field and our little allegiances. Did you have any role models in football who helped you find your way in the community?
VM: “My role model in life in general and in football was my dad, who unfortunately I lost when I was 16. It was a tough task to become a professional without him. He always dreamt with me and he sacrificed his life to get me where I am today and to have a nice career so far and become a professional. I would say my dad. He was my role model.
“And then there’s many good people in general in football. You always want more of these people in your life in football. You mentioned Jermain, he’s one of them, but anywhere I can go I can find people who see it the same.
“In football there is so much violence, now we see racism, we see people using football in the wrong way but I think as well as you mention these moments, these stories like Bradley or many others behind the scenes, kids who are examples, it brings football together. It makes you realize it’s not hate, it’s not violence, there’s nothing that goes above these stories.”
PST: On the field, this season… Remarkable. When a player comes to MLS and he comes with a resume like yours, you expect the player to have a decent season but I don’t know that we could’ve expected to see a goalie play as well as you did while adjusting to a new culture and country on a pretty new team. What would you say about the season?
VM: “Tremendous journey. Tremendous adventure. In general I loved every minute of it. It’s always tough when you change countries. You bring your family out in a new place. It’s never easy, not an easy job, but I had a feeling from the first chat I had with the club, I felt like it was a good project. As soon as I landed here, they treated me with respect and they showed me I was an important piece of the puzzle.
“Opening a new stadium, meeting news fans everything went really well. We started to climb and we got better and better. We molded as a team, new players, youngsters with veterans, and we had a magnificent cup run. The third year for this club in MLS. We reached the playoffs. We beat big clubs. We had an amazing season in a new stadium with special fans. Everything has been fantastic. If I go back (to Europe), I had a few objectives coming here and I successfully fulfilled all my dreams, also becoming Goalkeeper of the Year. You cannot ask for more.”
PST: Well, you brought it up… have you thought a lot about what’s next for you?
VM: “No, this season has just finished and I put 100 percent into it until the very last minute. We were unfortunate not to go through against Galaxy and it’s a bit of pain. But I can’t take anything away from the great season. I want to relax, sit down, see my options. I just talked to the club and it’s a good situation right now. I want to sit down with my agent, talk with my family, and see where we can go from here.”
PST: Overseas you had a number of American teammates in your career. Matt Miazga for a bit last year at Reading, Jozy Altidore at Sunderland. You’ve had plenty of career to evaluate American soccer. After a year in MLS, what’s your evaluation of soccer in America?
VM: “Until you get here, you can’t get the true feeling of what the American league is building. This league has great potential and in a few years, it will be there. Progressing really well. Incredible fans, stadiums everywhere you go. Facilities, every club I’ve been around this season has been fantastic and it’s far ahead of many many European clubs.
“What they need to get is keep going, keep building up history, and of course what I can tell you the difference is the standard of the football has been very high. I was impressed, good mix of South Americans, international from Europe, the big stars in Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Vela, my home friend Sagna, but these people want to embrace the league more and more.
“I had this impression from Europe of a retirement league, but it’s not, it’s not! It’s young players, talented players, good ones from America. Every team I faced was a challenge for me and now a days the market is changing — Almiron to Newcastle — it’s going both ways. One time it wasn’t like this. People going to England, to Italy, and coming out here too, it’s different. This will build up and get even better and better.”
PST: Who impressed you the most in MLS, both on your team and opposition?
VM: Let me think about that it’s difficult. Teammates… I’ve been really impressed with youngsters like Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper, Mason Toye, who came into the first team and are going to be big hits for U.S. national team one day. They have got quality and are good professional, surely yes. I had very good teammates in general. Many good players around, LAFC we all know what they did. My old friend Carlos (Vela), ha, he’s been on fire.
PST: How well did you know him at Arsenal?
VM: “We spent two years as a teammates. He was a youngster too and didn’t have his best time but progressed in his career. He had one of the best years, breaking the MLS record. He’s probably going to MVP and deservedly so.”
PST: Did he get break the record against you, or tie it? That’s a real jerk move!
VM: “Actually, the one to level the record (the penultimate game of the season). We texted each other before the game. I told him don’t worry about the record. You’ll score a hat trick in the last game but zero against me. He said, no no no, one against you and three in the last game, and actually he did it! I called it, so he needs to thank me.”
PST: Thanks for being so generous with your time and congratulations again. It seems you’ve always been in the news for good reasons, like wanting to avoid relegation for the behind the scenes people at Sunderland. It feels good to see you get an award.
VM: “Thank you, thank you very much.”
1997 – Brad Friedel (Columbus Crew)
1998 – Zach Thornton (Chicago Fire)
1999 – Kevin Hartman (LA Galaxy)
2000 – Tony Meloa (Kansas City Wizards)
2001 – Tim Howard (NY-NJ MetroStars)
2002 – Joe Cannon (San Jose Earthquakes)
2003 – Pat Onstad (San Jose Earthquakes)
2016 – Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)