In each of the last two seasons, the Princeton University men’s soccer team came agonizingly close to winning the Ivy League.
In 2012, Princeton posted a 4-1-2 league record but Cornell had a 6-1 mark to earn the crown. Last fall, the Tigers went 4-2-1 in the Ivies only to see Penn go 5-1-1 and wrest the title away from them.
Led by a group of nine seniors, Princeton is determined to get over the hump this fall.
“There is a hunger, they are into it,” said longtime Princeton head coach Jim Barlow, assessing the mood around the team in preseason.
“We are seeing energy, spirit, and chemistry. I think we have a nice balance in the senior class positionally. We have vocal leaders and guys who lead by example spread over the field.”
The senior leadership has translated into better communication on the field. “We saw in our scrimmage with Columbia how much more chatter there is,” said Barlow.
“They have a good way of pushing themselves and problem solving without waiting to hear from the coaches. The guys have been through a lot of hard, tough games.”
At forward, the Tigers should make things tough on their foes with a pair of All-Ivy performers in senior Cameron Porter (9 goals and 3 assists in 2013) and junior Thomas Sanner (7 goals, 1 assist) along with senior Julian Griggs (1 assist) and junior Nico Hurtado (2 goals, 2 assists).
“We feel we should be a little more explosive in our attack,” said Barlow.
“We are returning two first-team All-Ivy forwards and if Griggs had been healthy last year, he would have been in contention. Hurtado is creative and clever with the ball. We have some depth and some explosiveness, we are hungry to get them the ball. We are trying to figure the best positions and who should be paired with whom. We may mix and match and have different looks for different games.”
There figures to be a lot of mixing and matching in the midfield as Princeton boasts a number of options there, including junior Brendan McSherry (2 goals, 4 assists), sophomore Brian Costa (1 assist), senior Joe Saitta (1 assist), junior Jack Hilger, and sophomore Bryan Windsor (1 goal).
“We have a lot of depth in the midfield and there is not a lot separating them,” said Barlow.
“McSherry and Costa started the scrimmage, they will see a lot of playing time. There are a lot of guys who are really close. We have to figure out our top group. Some guys are trying to get fit and win a spot so some days they have heavy legs and it is tough to judge.”
Another returning All-Ivy standout, senior Myles McGinley, looks to fill the spot as a link between the defense and the midfield.
“In the spring, we played Myles wide on the right,” noted Barlow. “With Chris Benedict leaving a hole in that spot, we need someone who can defend and attack. We may have Myles at midfield/defender as a guy who gets forward a lot.”
Princeton has a lot of talent on defense, featuring first-team All-Ivy performer senior Josh Miller along with senior Andrew Mills (3 assists), sophomore Patrick Barba, sophomore Mark Romanowski, and sophomore Greg Seifert.
“Miller gives us athleticism and leadership; he keeps the back line committed,” said Barlow of Miller, the only Tiger to start all 17 games last fall.
“He is so tuned in, he reads plays and he helps others get in position. Mills came on at the end last year and he has done well. Barba has been excellent. Romanowski and Seifert are strong athletic defenders. I think we are going to be OK in the back.”
The Tigers look OK in goal with the emergence of 6’6 junior Ben Hummel. “Hummel had an excellent spring, he’s huge and athletic,” said Barlow of Hummel who made two starts last fall and had a goals against average of 1.00.
“He’s athletic for a guy that size, he played a lot of basketball in high school. He has quick movement and is good at changing direction. We are comfortable with the way he plays balls in the box. With his height, he is able to pick off balls that other keepers can’t get to.”
Barlow is hoping his squad gets things going in the right direction when they open regular season play with a game at Fairleigh Dickinson University (0-2) on September 5.
“We remember last year when things were going well in preseason and we went up there for opener and got pummeled 3-0,” said Barlow. “We never could get into a rhythm. The guys are excited for the game. FDU has done well year in, year out. I saw they lost their first game so they will be hungry.”
After going 3-7 in non-conference games last fall, Princeton is hungry to do better in that part of its schedule.
“We have a lot of guys who have been on the field a lot in the last two years,” said Barlow, noting that the team’s freshman class boasts several players who could see playing time as the season unfolds, noting that newcomers Matt Mangini, Daniel Bowkett, Michael Chang, James Reimer, Nicholas Badalamenti, and Chase Bishov all have a good pedigree.
“We want to play stronger in our non-conference games. We all struggled in the league last year except Dartmouth and then they couldn’t win in the conference. For us to get more than one team from the league in the NCAA tournament, we need to have a better RPI (Rating Percentage Index).”
Barlow, for his part, believes his team just has to be a little bit better around the goal at both ends of the field to produce a strong campaign.
“I think we can create chances with our athleticism, experience, and talent up the field,” said Barlow.
“We had chances last year but we didn’t put them away at a high percentage. The last part was not sharp enough. We can’t be panicking when we get behind defense; we need to be composed at the finish. We need to be better on re-starts, attacking, and defending on corner kicks and on throw-ins. Being rock solid defensively is the starting point.”