September 1, 2021

Boasting Talent All Over the Field as it Returns to Action, PU Men’s Soccer Primed to Open Season Against Rutgers

KICK STARTER: Princeton University men’s soccer player Kevin O’Toole, right, controls the ball in a 2019 game. Senior star O’Toole, a two-time All-Ivy League selection and the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, will be looking to get his senior season off to a big start when Princeton hosts Rutgers (1-0-1) on September 3 at Class of 1952 Stadium in its season opener.It will mark the first game for the Tigers since November 16, 2019 when they fell 2-1 to Yale to end the season at 10-4-3 overall and 2-2-3 Ivy League before the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Princeton University men’s soccer head coach Jim Barlow, seeing the 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19 concerns robbed him and his players of what they cherish most.

“It is the reason we do what we do; it is the thing that is most joyful about our job and we weren’t able to do it,” said Barlow, whose team last played on November 16, 2019 when it fell 2-1 to Yale to end that season at 10-4-3 overall and 2-2-3 Ivy League.

“That was the hardest part, not being able to get after it with the guys. I think what we do is important to their well-being, and to have it not happen was tough.”

There was lots of joy as the squad hit the field for preseason training starting on August 21 to start preparing for hosting Rutgers (1-0-1) in the season opener on September 3 at Class of 1952 Stadium.

“There is definitely an extra level of excitement to be back,” said Barlow.

“The guys have been waiting for it for a long time. The energy has been really positive, the guys came back fit.”

Last Saturday, Princeton worked on gaining game fitness as it scrimmaged The College of New Jersey in a morning match featuring first-year players and then the veterans took on Columbia later in the day.

“It is just getting that kind of running down, the constant high accelerations, covering a lot of ground, that part was good to get guys used to that,” said Barlow.

“And then just starting to figure out who is going to take care of what responsibilities. I think we made some progress in both of those areas.”

Figuring out the lineup is going to be a challenge for Barlow.

“We have more players than usual, 32 guys came back,” said Barlow, noting that nearly half the team didn’t enroll for the 2020-21 school year.

“It is going to be really, really hard to name a travel squad. We can only travel with 20. We have got a lot of good guys who are all competing and who it means an awful lot to. It is going to be really, really difficult for the coaches to split hairs with some of that stuff.”

Princeton has some very good guys at forward in senior Kevin O’Toole (3 goals, 4 assists in 2019), sophomore Walker Gillespie (7 goals, 1 assist), junior Daniel Diaz Bonilla (3 goals, 2 assists), junior Ryan Clare (2 goals, 5 assists), senior Frankie DeRosa (3 goals, 4 assists), junior Spencer Fleurant (3 goals), and freshman Harry Roberts.

The duo of O’Toole and Gillespie should form a potent one-two punch up top for the Tigers.

“O’Toole is really versatile; he can play as one of the forwards out wide, he can play in the midfield, he can be a playmaker and he can play a little deeper,” said Barlow of O’Toole, a two-time All-Ivy selection and the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year in 2018.

“He is going to help us get goals for sure. Gillespie looks good, he is a guy who is big, strong, fast and loves to run to goal and get dangerous. We are hoping that he builds off of that good first year where he just found a way to get goals. His starting points are really special and now he needs to just fine-tune some of the other details and become a little bit more comfortable in traffic, a little more comfortable in running at defenders, comfortable laying balls off in the right moment, and combining. He has the tools.”

Fine-tuning the midfield will also be tricky for Barlow as he has some good players to choose from in that unit.

“There are a lot of guys there,” said Barlow, who will be looking at senior Moulay Hamza Kanzi Belghiti (1 assist), senior Kazu Shigenobu, sophomore Malik Pinto, freshman James Wangsness, and junior Tristano Fasulo in addition to Clare and O’Toole.

On the back line, senior Alex Charles has emerged as a force in the middle of the Tiger defense.

“Alex has been awesome so far in preseason,” said Barlow, noting that Jack Roberts, O’Toole, and Charles are serving as captains this fall.

“Alex has been really solid, and then it is just figuring out who else back there is going to lock down the defense.”

That unit should be solid as there is a mix of battle-tested veterans and promising new faces.

“There are some good options — junior Lucas Gen and junior Ben Bograd have looked pretty solid,” added Barlow.

“There is a sophomore, Whit Gamblin, who trained with us in the spring and is competing for time back there. There is another sophomore, Francis Akomeah-Sirleaf, who played left back for most of the Columbia game. Ben played right back and then Lucas and Alex played in the middle. One of the guys who has really impressed us in preseason is a junior Mateo Godoy, who did not see many minutes during his first two years but has emerged as a real contender for left back. Axel Johansson is a freshman from Sweden who took a gap year, he can play in the midfield or defense. He is a really good passer, he is tall, he is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Freshman Stephen Duncan is another defender.”
Seniors Jack Roberts (4-0-1 in 2019 with a 0.59 goals against average) and Sam Morton (1 appearance in 2019), along with freshmen William Watson and Khamari Hadaway, are in the mix at goalkeeper.

“It is by far our deepest position, we have four really good goalies,” said Barlow, noting that four goalies saw action for the Tigers in 2019.

“It is really tough on a given day to separate who will be the No. 1. We have four really talented keepers. We will see how that works out.”

Getting good work from the goalies will be critical to success this fall for the Tigers.

“It is usually the team that concedes the fewest goals that winds up dominating the league,” said Barlow.

“Having that as a starting point, being really hard to score on, being tenacious defensively, having good goalies and not giving away bad restarts are keys. And capitalizing on our opportunities because we think we are going to get opportunities. We are a talented team in the attack. We have some guys who can take people on, we have some guys who can finish and we have some guys who can run with the ball. We are cautiously optimistic that we could have a big season but it is still so early.”

Barlow is looking forward to a big opening night when Rutgers comes to town on Friday evening.

“It is a great rivalry, they have a really good team,” said Barlow.

“They had some success in the spring and they are building off of that. It is a fun way to start the year. Hopefully we will have a really good crowd and it will be a really exciting atmosphere.”

Heading into the contest, Princeton believes it has the potential to produce some exciting soccer for its fans.

“We haven’t had a lot of games to figure out our identity,” said Barlow.

“We haven’t spent too much time learning about them yet, we will this week. We are way more focused on us, trying to figure out our identity and who is going to take care of our responsibilities, what kind of things that we are going to be special at and help us get results.”