November 3, 2021

Sparked by Stellar Play from Charles on the Back Line, PU Men’s Soccer Nips Cornell, Stays Atop Ivy Standings

CHARLES IN CHARGE: Princeton University men’s soccer player Alex Charles clears the ball in recent action. Senior defender and co-captain Charles helped shore up the back line and picked up an assist as Princeton defeated Cornell 2-1 last Saturday in a clash of the two teams atop the Ivy League standings. The Tigers, now 10-5 overall and 5-0 Ivy, play at Penn on November 6. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Alex Charles knew that he had to be on his toes as the Princeton University men’s soccer team hosted Cornell last Saturday in a clash of the two teams atop the Ivy League standings.

“We had it circled on the calendar for a while; we knew going into the season that Cornell was going to be a fantastic team,” said Princeton senior defender and co-captain Charles who had helped the Tigers to a 9-5 overall and 4-0 Ivy start coming into Saturday with Cornell bringing a 10-2-1 overall and 3-1 Ivy record to the contest.

“Obviously they have a great record and have gotten some great results. Our mentality going into it was to make this our championship game. If we win this one, we just have to focus on the last two.”

On Saturday, the Tigers were focused on containing a high-powered Cornell attack which had scored 36 goals in its first 13 games.

“Their No. 14 (Emeka Eneli) up top is a great player, he has a really good hold up and they look to play it into his feet and lay it off and get runs through,” said Charles.

“The No. 12 (Tyler Bagley) has a lot of talent, he is great on the free kicks as well. It was really about stopping those special players.”

With both rivals eyeing an Ivy title, the contest featured frenzied play with end-to-end runs, rugged tackles, and bodies flying all over the pitch. Cornell’s Henry Hylbert picked up a red card 26:44 into the contest and Princeton looked to capitalize on the man-up situation.

“Any time you go up a man it is an opportunity to put the game away so that was certainly our mentality,” said Charles.

“After that we wanted to be smart in the back and not concede anything.”

Minutes after the ejection, the Tigers took a 1-0 lead as Walker Gillespie scored on a corner kick by Kevin O’Toole.  Early in the second half, Princeton doubled its lead on a goal by Daniel Diaz Bonilla, assisted on by O’Toole and Charles.

“I was streaking forward and any time you see Kevin O’Toole running forward, you have to give him the ball,” said Charles, reflecting on his assist.

“He is a very fast player, one of our best on the ball. I saw him put his hand up, I had to give him the ball. He made the magic happen.”

The Big Red did find the back of the net with 2:12 left in regulation but Charles and the Princeton defense shut the door on Cornell from there, winning 2-1 as the Tigers improved to 10-5 overall and 5-0 Ivy and posted their sixth straight victory.

Charles was proud of how the Princeton defensive unit stepped up.

“I thought it was good from the guys, we have a lot of young guys in the back line,” said Charles.

“Issa [Mudashiru] is a freshman and Stephen Duncan has been subbing in to every game as a freshman. It was a great test for those guys to see what it is like under the lights in a big game and I thought they had great performances.”

The battle-tested Charles, who earned Honorable Mention All-Ivy honors in 2019, has been looking to be a good leader in his final campaign.

“I think it is just about being vocal,” said Charles, a 5’10, 155-pound native of Durham, N.C.

“We have done a lot of film sessions and tactics sessions as a team so it is just making sure that we are all on the same page. We are doing our individual jobs and working for each other. That is what we said in the huddle before the game started tonight.”

Riding a six-game winning streak, the Tigers have been getting the job done in recent weeks.

“It is our mentality that every game we get better,” said Charles.

“At the start of the season, we were in a lot of games and ended up not getting the results in our favor. Now the results have to started to fall for us. We feel like it is coming together. That comes from working with each other, hanging out with each other more off the field, trying to gel more. It is a ton of passion. Every single player contributes on this team. It is not just the guys who play, it is the guys who don’t play on the bench as well.”

Charles, for his part, is passionate about ending his Tiger career with an Ivy crown.

“Any time you are a senior and you sniff an Ivy League title you have to run with it full heart,” said Charles.

“That is a thing we said in the huddle, we have a lot of seniors so do it for us and we will do it for the freshmen. Getting them started with a ring would be fantastic.”

Princeton head coach Jim Barlow credited his players with displaying a lot of heart in league play.

“Our guys have taken every single Ivy League game as a championship game; we just put No. 5 on the board today because it is our fifth Ivy League championship game,” said Barlow.

“I think they realized early in the year that we probably weren’t getting in (the NCAA tournament) as an at-large team. The amount of intensity and excitement that they have leading up to an Ivy League game in the team room, in the locker room, in practice the day before, shows they want it really bad. That matters, that is a factor. When things aren’t going well, they believe that they are going to weather it.”

Dealing with Cornell required the Tigers to weather the storm.

“That is a really good team that we played today; we started the game with four in the back, we have been going back and forth with three in the back and four in the back,” said Barlow.

“It was still hard to contain them. Their attacking guys are fast and they work hard. They are good with their runs and dangerous. All of our guys in the back did a great job. We had to bring on a couple of guys in Ben Bograd and Stephen Duncan and they did a great job.”

Charles and senior goalie Jack Roberts, who made 11 saves and was later named the Ivy Player of the Week, did a great job spearheading the Princeton defense.

“Alex played several different positions again today,” said Barlow.

“When Lucas [Gen] got hurt today, we put Alex at center back and he played right back when we were playing four in the back and then wingback when we were paying three in the back. Jack just has so much confidence; it is contagious the confidence that he has back there.”

Scoring minutes after Cornell got red-carded was a confidence builder for Princeton.

“Getting the goal right after was important because I think if we didn’t get a goal right away, they would have sat in a little and they are explosive on the counter,” said Barlow. 

“So then they had to come out and I think that helped us to get the second goal.”

Senior star and leading scorer O’Toole (7 goals, 9 assists) was in on both goals as he has made a habit of producing in Ivy contests. 

“O’Toole is a special player and has risen to the occasion for sure,” said Barlow.

With the Tigers playing at Penn on November 6, Barlow is confident that his squad will keep rising to the occasion.

“It is the kind of group that isn’t going to be satisfied,” said Barlow. “As soon as we got in there, they said two more.”

Charles, for his part, is looking to do a lot more this fall. “We don’t just want to win the league, we want to go undefeated in the league,” said Charles.

“Princeton hasn’t done that in a long time. If we can win the league, we can do something in the tournament. We want to go as long and as far as we can go.”