July 12, 2023

Skipping his Senior Season for PU Men’s Soccer to Go Pro, Midfielder Pinto Making Impact for FC Cincinnati of MLS

MAJOR SHOWDOWN: FC Cincinnati midfielder Malik Pinto, right, races past Kevin O’Toole of NYCFC as the two former Princeton University men’s soccer teammates met in the U.S. Open Cup on May 10 in Cincinnati. Pinto, who bypassed his senior season this fall for Princeton, to join the Major League Soccer club, has emerged as a key performer for FC Cincinnati. The 5’11, 155-pound native of Durham, N.C., has made 17 appearances with one start for the club, which is currently in first place in the Eastern Conference standings with 45 points (13 wins, 6 draws, 2 losses). (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

Malik Pinto will be missing from the Princeton University men’s soccer lineup when the team opens the season on September 1 against Rutgers.

Pinto, though, does have a game the next day in Cincinnati but it will be a Major League Soccer (MLS) contest. Following his junior season with the Tigers in 2022, Pinto’s collegiate career ended and his professional career began when he signed a deal with FC Cincinnati of MLS in January.

“I’ve gotten a lot of interest in terms of people letting me know when I was younger, that the potential to play professionally was there,” said Pinto. “The most important thing was maybe waiting for what was the right time.”

Pinto is unique as a Princeton player turning professional before finishing his college career. He played the last two seasons for the Tigers after his freshman year, 2020-21, when the Ivy League canceled all sports. He’ll bypass his senior season for the chance to take his shot professionally.

“This was a right time before this season, and I’m happy with my decision to leave with the back-up option knowing that I’m going to be all right whether my soccer career goes amazing or if it doesn’t go as well,” said Pinto. “That’s one of the reasons that you go to Princeton, for the education and the relationships that you make and the people you meet.”

Pinto was named All-Ivy League in both seasons that he played for the Tigers. In 2021, Pinto played in all 18 matches with 14 starts, tallying two goals and two assists as Princeton won the Ivy championship. Last fall, he had four assists while starting all 16 games for the Tigers.

“Malik is such a talented passer,” said Princeton head coach Jim Barlow. “He delivers the ball at the right time with the right pace. His comfort on the ball and his vision make him well-prepared for the increase in speed of play and decrease in space and time when you have the ball at the next level. He also covers ground and understands the importance of solid and responsible defending. He’s already shown that he can handle the demands of professional soccer, and he has confidence and a strong mentality to continue to improve.”

Pinto sees leaving Princeton for the MLS as a first step and first opportunity at his biggest goals. Pinto, who won’t turn 21 until August, would like to play on a bigger stage.

“My ultimate goal, and it always has been, is to play in Europe,” said Pinto. “Right now I just want to focus on how I can get as good as possible, especially in this league and focus on helping the team win and continuing to get more minutes. My goal has always been to be a part of the national team and play in Europe. Just by continuing to work hard, I’ll do my best to attain those goals, and I believe I can make that happen. Right now, it’s just about starting small but not forgetting the bigger picture and how far I want to take this thing.”

Getting a jumpstart on his professional career is an important step. While his early departure is unique to the Princeton program, it is not unique to the Pinto family. His older sister, Brianna, left North Carolina after her junior year to play professionally.

“I saw her do it,” said Pinto. “She graduated in 2022 so she graduated on time. It made it seem like if you wanted to do it, it wasn’t necessarily going to be easy, but if you tried your best to make it happen then you could do both.”

Pinto’s older brother also played professionally. Hassan Pinto began his career at Elon before transferring to Duke. After finishing a year in graduate school, he had professional stints with the Richmond Kickers, Loudon United, and DC United before returning to earn an MBA at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

“That’s a different pathway than myself, but we both played professional soccer,” said Pinto. “It’s a case-by-case basis just in terms of the timing. Seeing the pathways of my siblings, my parents were understanding this was an opportunity, and even with the growth of the MLS this opportunity doesn’t come to everybody. They were totally behind me in whatever decision I made, whether it was to stay at school or play in the MLS.”

Pinto’s parents, too, were athletes. His father played soccer at North Carolina while his mother played softball there.

“One of their values is doing well academically,” said Pinto. “The biggest thing for them is for myself and my siblings, putting us in a position where we were going to be fine regardless of how soccer goes is the most important thing. They were very happy for me to be able to take the opportunity at Princeton. They knew this had been my dream to be a professional soccer player. Everybody’s timing is different, but they felt this timing was right to be able to take this jump. Everybody’s situation is different.”

Pinto’s situation was indeed unique. Not only did he have a family with a history of professional soccer players, but he was able to establish an early connection to the professional level. Before he enrolled at Princeton, several clubs, FC Cincinnati among them, had inquired about his willingness to take a gap year and train for their academy teams.

When the Ivy League canceled its 2020 fall season and Princeton kept students off campus, Pinto saw an opportunity. He reached back out to professional clubs about training with them, and ultimately connected with FC Cincinnati. He played with their U-19 Academy team through the fall while training with the club. In the spring, when the MLS season began, he continued to train with the club and it gave him a head start as a rookie player after he signed a professional deal less than two years later.

“While it’s a different roster, there are still some of those same people,” said Pinto. “It’s been easy to adjust because I’ve already had that groundwork of getting to know people on the team. I think that made them and the staff super comfortable with me. You still have to do your rookie duties, it’s the same thing as school, but it’s cool. You’re meeting different people, you’re playing with different players. It’s interesting being a younger guy on the team for sure.”

Pinto has worked his way into getting minutes for FC Cincinnati. After not playing the first three games of the season, he made his first start in the fourth game of the year. He’s been adjusting to the lifestyle of the professional player and what it takes to succeed at this level.

“It’s been interesting, but it’s been great just how much time you can put into focusing on getting better whether that’s getting stronger, getting better technically, or getting better tactically,” said Pinto. “I think I’ve had a huge jump in my positioning on the field for example. Just the fact that I’ve been able to receive and take on information, which I feel like I got better at through my time at Princeton, has allowed the (Cincinnati) coaching staff to have trust in me and put me in difficult situations. My first appearance for the club was on the road at Nashville, which was a team second or third in the conference right now in front of 28,000. Being able to take on information and be ready for whenever my number is called has been a huge part of the experience. You never know when your number will be called, but you have to ready for whatever scenario.”

The unknown is one of the biggest changes for Pinto. At Princeton, he started nearly every game of his career and averaged 75 minutes per game. His time has varied with FC Cincinnati, from playing the final minute of a 2-2 tie against New England on July 1 up to 64 minutes in his first start, plus 83- and 89-minute efforts in US Open Cup games.

“At school, one of the things I was learning was how to bring it every day,” said Pinto. “I’m still working on trying to be consistent and bring the same attitude and same mentality every day to training every time, and to the game, and just try to be more consistent. When you become consistent, you become more reliable, whether it’s at school or at FC Cincinnati. Building every day towards ‘I want to get better at this,’ ‘I want to stay after and work on this’ — that’s enabled me to be ready whenever my number is called.”

Pinto falls back on some of the lessons that he learned in his time at Princeton as he improved from his time under Barlow’s direction.

“His experience to help me and guide me with things that he wanted me to do, things that I could get better with, ultimately it’s what set me up,” said Pinto. “My first playing year, which was my sophomore year, we were able to have an Ivy League championship. That was something that bonded me and this unique group of people. We can always share that bond of winning an Ivy League championship. Learning how to win and grind out games in a short span of time is something I won’t take for granted. Going into my second year, which was my junior year of school, learning to take on more of a leadership role — we lost a lot of seniors the year before — just seeing how I could help the team, help the younger guys was definitely something that helped me build my charisma.”

Playing at Princeton also gave him a small model of the sort of collaboration that he now sees at the professional level. Pinto was able to fit in quickly with the Tigers and contribute to their Ivy title season, and was a key player this year with a new dynamic to Princeton.

“The main reason I went there was just how cool it is to play with a group of guys who all chose Princeton for different reasons and all came from different backgrounds,” said Pinto. “That was super cool. Being able to associate with different backgrounds helps me in the professional level because everybody is from different counties or different areas of the United States, and just being able to communicate with them in English, Spanish, whatever, is important.”

Pinto has found his way on to a team off to a good start. After the first 21 games, Cincinnati is first in the Eastern Conference with 45 points (13 wins, 6 draws, 2 losses), even after their 10-game home winning streak was snapped with the tie July 1.

“It’s definitely been a great team to be a part of,” said Pinto. “As soon I got here in preseason and we got together you could see the winning culture that was being built in the group. I think that’s a testament to the staff, the players who are bought in to our culture, and the fans especially. The winning streak at home, they’ve been amazing. They’ve brought it every game and we’ve had so many sellouts. It’s been great to be part of.”

Pinto has had the chance to play in some memorable games. He’s been to Washington, D.C., where he spent plenty of time early in his life with his grandmother. On July 8, he returned to his home state of North
Carolina to take on Charlotte, a team that didn’t exist for him growing up. Pinto played eight minutes off the bench in a homecoming as the squad played to a 2-2 draw. An early game in St. Louis, albeit a lopsided loss (5-1 on April 15), gave him perspective on the growing enthusiasm in new MLS cities. Then there was the U.S. Open Cup game against NYCFC on May 10 in Cincinnati, which has former Princeton teammate Kevin O’Toole on its roster.

“When Kevin and I played versus each other, a lot of my teammates were able to come,” said Pinto. “That was the game where they stuck around a little after school and reunions ended and they were able to come to the game. Trying to find little times like that when I can see them is a great thing.”

Pinto has plans to return to see his former Princeton teammates play this fall and to reconnect with the coaching staff. They remain an important part of his life.

“The people in my class are seniors now so they’ll be taking the field for the last time this fall in a Princeton uniform,” said Pinto. “Being there for them, getting to see the coaching staff and Jim, Steve [Totten], and Sam [Maira] and Tom [Moffat], it will be huge to see them and experience campus. Although I’m doing adult stuff, I’m still a student at heart and I want to see the people that I’ve been going to school with.”

Pinto also has to sort out an academic schedule as he eyes progressing toward graduation with two semesters to go. Nothing is firmly in place for graduation plans as Pinto focuses on advancing his professional career. He has several areas in which he feels he can grow.

“One of the goals for myself is, “Can I earn more minutes in the second half of the season than the first half of the season?” said Pinto. “Even if it’s by one minute, that’s a goal I want to achieve. I’ve been really good in terms of shielding off the defense, and helping defensively, progressing the ball, moving forward on the pass. The next goal is how can I contribute to the attack more and contribute with the guys going forward and help the team score more goals. I think that’s the next step for me. Those are things I’m going to be working on after practice and trying to get better at.”

Pinto is looking forward to the next steps. His journey is unique for a Princeton player, but his decision to leave the Tigers early puts him on the path to attain his lifelong goals. Twenty-one games into his professional career, it looks like he picked the right time.

“I think I’m just trying to build on what’s been a great start to season,” said Pinto. “The second part will more difficult and more things are going to be asked of you with how many games are coming up and how important these games are. The biggest thing is how much the fans have welcomed me and the city has been welcoming and how good it has been to adjust to a new city and play for a really good team. We’re doing super well, and I hope we can continue to do that.”