September 21, 2022

Despite Being Plagued By Inconsistency in 1-2-1 Start, PU Men’s Soccer Confident it Can Get on Winning Track

BEN THERE, DONE THAT: Princeton University men’s soccer player Ben Bograd controls the ball in recent action. Senior Bograd has helped anchor the backline for the Tigers this fall as they have gotten off to a 1-2-1 start. Princeton, which fell 3-1 at Fairfield last Saturday, hosts Rider on September 23 before playing at St. John’s on September 27. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

All the analytics said that the Princeton University men’s soccer team had the upper hand on Fairfield last Saturday evening.

The scoreboard said otherwise. The Tigers suffered a 3-1 loss at Fairfield to follow up an incredible team effort that led to a 2-1 win at Penn State the week earlier.

“I think we’ve been pretty inconsistent through the first four games,” said Princeton head coach Jim Barlow after falling to 1-2-1 heading into Tuesday’s scheduled game against Loyola.

“There are certain parts of our game that haven’t progressed enough, especially defending the restarts.”

The first two goals by Fairfield came off restarts and their third came on a counterattack after a Princeton corner kick, one of numerous scoring chances that the Tigers created. Princeton has gotten better through the early season at creating chances, and is hoping to finish more of them in the upcoming stretch. Princeton fired seven more shots than did Fairfield and held a 9-1 edge in corner kicks.

“When you look at the stats of the Fairfield game, it was arguably our best game in terms of time of possession in their end and chances created,” said Barlow.

“When you look at the data analytics from that game, the expected goals were two goals more than Fairfield, but we still ended up losing. From that standpoint, it’s been a little bit frustrating.”

Princeton opened the season with a 1-1 tie against Rutgers, then fell to Vermont, 2-0, despite outshooting the Catamounts, 16-8.

“In both of our losses, we outshot our opponent pretty significantly and conceded goals that we felt like you just can’t concede if you expect to win a college soccer game,” said Barlow.

Princeton turned around and won at Penn State to show its potential when things start clicking. It’s the second year in a row that the Tigers beat Penn State.

“It was a great win against Penn State,” said Barlow. “It would be hard to single anyone out against Penn State because everyone just worked so hard for that result. Against Fairfield, especially in the second half, we felt it was a really good team effort. The middle of the midfield was really strong. In the second half, it was a first-year Gabe Duchovny playing behind Malik Pinto and James Wangsness. Those guys had a really good stretch where they controlled the game and helped set up a lot of chances.”

Barlow has seen the team start to generate more opportunities, and that bodes well for their upcoming schedule if they finish better.

“We had a really good stretch in the second half, about 25 minutes against Fairfield was probably our best stretch of the year,” said Barlow.

“We were just all over them and getting good chances. We hit the crossbar, their keeper made a couple good saves, we had another couple that went over.”

Fairfield had fewer chances but capitalized on their pressure. Princeton gave up an own goal but Fairfield returned the favor to tie the score. The Stags scored the next two goals of the game for the win when the Tigers couldn’t find the equalizing goals.

“Up front we’ve just been snakebit with the last piece of putting it away,” said Barlow.

“But Daniel Diaz Bonilla, Walker Gillespie, Jack Jasinski, all created a lot of chances in that game. Ryan Clare had another solid game. We feel like the score against Fairfield doesn’t say enough about the way things have been going. We think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Princeton still has another pair of non-league games after its Loyola contest before opening Ivy League play at Dartmouth. Princeton hosts Rider in a local showdown on September 23 in Class of 1952 Stadium, its final game there before moving into renovated Roberts Stadium for the remainder of the year. The Tigers are also slated to play at St. John’s on September 27.

“We have our last two games in the lacrosse stadium this week, and then we move into our stadium, which everyone is really excited about,” said Barlow.

“I’m hoping we can just put the loss against Fairfield behind us and get right back to work. I’m confident we can. We have a hard schedule for a reason. We do it to get better. And if a couple games get away from you early in the season, it’s not the end of the world. We just have to make sure that we take our lessons from it and get back to work and turn things around.”

It will help when the Tigers have their full complement of players. Princeton hasn’t played at full strength yet, and in particular they were down some key pieces in the second half against Fairfield.

“One of the things is we have to get healthy,” said Barlow. “At the end of the Fairfield game, we had four defenders and a goalkeeper who have all had a ton of time were off with either injury or illness. So we have to get healthy. Especially in the back, that’s been something that’s been a big priority to get our guys all to the point where we can figure out what the best lineup is based on how guys are playing, not based on who’s available that day.”

One silver lining to the early injuries and illness is it has gotten more of the roster on the field. Princeton has been able to develop its depth out of necessity.

“I feel like we are a deep team,” said Barlow. “From game to game, the lineup may change depending on what we think it will take to win that game and what qualities we need. The first-year guys have come in and made an impact right away, even the guys that haven’t gotten on the field are close to getting on the field. The depth has been a real benefit to us. I think most teams, if they lose that many guys early in the season, would be getting outplayed and we don’t think that’s the case with us.”

As Princeton builds to full strength, they are relying on veterans to keep the team focused and heading in the right direction. The Tigers have five All-Ivy League players back from last year’s Ivy championship team.

“There’s a lot of guys who saw a good amount of minutes in the past,” said Barlow.

“Lucas Gen is our senior captain and he missed the first couple games with injuries. He’s slowly getting back to himself and getting back to form and we hope he continues to get healthy and improve. There are guys like Daniel Diaz Bonilla who have been at it for years, and Ben Bograd and Walker Gillespie and Malik played a ton last year and James Wangsness played a ton last year. Ryan Clare has been on the field a lot his four years so there’s a lot of experienced guys that understand what it’s going to take.”

To that experienced group the Tigers added a strong selection of newcomers. The first-year class was ranked No. 5 by TopDrawerSoccer. They have come in and made an immediate impact.

“Giuliano (Fravolini) Whitchurch has been really solid and he’s dealt with a couple injuries already, but we know he’s going to be a really important defender for us,” said Barlow.

“Jack Jasinski has played in several spots. He’s played in the middle of the midfield, he’s played up front, he’s played wide. He created a lot of our better chances against Fairfield, and he’s been a really solid first-year. Gabriel Duchovny has come off the bench and done a really good job as a deep midfielder. Sam Vigilante and Daniel Ittycheria have already gotten minutes as first-year guys and done pretty well with them.”

The trick for the Tigers is sorting out all its depth and healing from injuries so it can put the best side on the field. Princeton hasn’t had an abundance of time to evaluate all its potential lineups, but each week is helping them draw closer to figuring out their most effective look.

“We’re getting there, but with such a short preseason and only one scrimmage, it’s so hard,” said Barlow.

“You got through this beginning part of the season where you don’t really know your team yet. Against Rutgers we felt like we were throwing darts a bit to see what would work because we just hadn’t had an opportunity to play in games yet other than the one scrimmage date. We’re still putting pieces together and learning more. Some guys came into camp with a little bit of an injury and are starting to get healthy. We’re trying to learn about those guys as well. It’s clear that it’s a very good, deep group, but it’s not clear how it’s all going to come together.”

The first four games have given the Tigers a mixed bag in terms of results, but Princeton has been uplifted by the way it is developing in some areas. Once the team is healthier and defending restart situations with more urgency, the Tigers feel good about their potential in a highly competitive Ivy League.

“The encouraging signs are our ball movement has gotten better,” said Barlow.

“Our ability to get forward with some urgency has gotten better. Our defending up the field has been pretty good lately where we’re keeping teams pinned in and not letting them out. And I think we’re a good team. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win games, but there’s a lot of good starting points with this group.”