July 26, 2023

Making Progress in His 2nd Major League Soccer Season, PU Alum O’Toole Emerging as Key Player for NYCFC

JERSEY GUY: NYCFC’s Kevin O’Toole, right, and Malik Pinto of FC Cincinnati trade jerseys after the two former Princeton University men’s soccer standouts met in the U.S. Open Cup on May 10. O’Toole, a 2022 Princeton grad and Montclair native, has emerged as a key performer for NYCFC in his second Major League Soccer (MLS) campaign. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

Kevin O’Toole served a dangerous ball into the middle of the box in the final minutes of the New York City Football Club’s game at Philadelphia on July 15.

Two teammates had chances to finish it, but the ball didn’t go in as NYCFC lost, 2-1, to conclude the first half of the Major League Soccer (MLS) season.

For O’Toole, the game was another nod to how far the former Princeton University men’s soccer star has come in just over year. O’Toole, a 2022 Princeton grad and Montclair native, played all 90 minutes in his second straight start. He’s started three of the club’s last five games and is living up to the higher expectations that he set for his second professional season of playing more and being a more valuable teammate.

“When I’m on the field, I can bring something different to the game, so whatever that was going to look like — whether it was coming off the bench for 20-minute cameos or being able to start multiple games in a row — I was ready to do that,” said O’Toole, a 5’10, 150-pound forward who was a two-time Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year (2018, 2021), tallying 15 goals and 18 assists in his Tiger career.

“That was my goal — to be able to contribute to the team in that way. And also having more of a voice on the team, that’s something I’ve grown in this year. It was a bit difficult in the beginning of the year last year when I came in as a draft pick and earned my spot in the beginning through a trial, and to transition into not getting a ton of minutes last year and finally breaking into the squad. Then towards the end, I think I could feel like I could really make a step, vocally and as a leader in the group, going into the year. That’s another thing I think I’ve developed.”

O’Toole’s main focus going forward is to help the team improve. It’s been a frustrating stretch for NYCFC, which is 5-8-11. They have won just once since April 29, but lead the MLS with 11 ties. Their loss to Philadelphia was their first since May. The top nine teams reach the MLS playoffs from the Eastern Conference, and NYCFC is 13th, but tied in points with the 11th place New York Red Bulls and 12th place Charlotte. DC United currently sits in ninth with 30 points.

“All my goals right now are team focused,” said O’Toole, who has played 16 games so far this season with seven starts. “We’re a bit off that playoff line at the moment, and the most important thing is making sure we’re over that line come the end of October. That’s the biggest goal. We’ll have a good run of home games to close out the year for Leagues Cup, which is the midseason tournament break, and so I think it’ll be important to make sure we put in the performances and results in front of our home crowd, because that’s where we can really make up some ground in the table and get into the playoff picture. That’s the main goal. Personal goals, it’s just being on the field for some of those moments and some of those big wins that we have coming up. I think it’ll be special to be a part of that, and then hopefully carry that momentum through to playoffs.”

O’Toole was selected by NYCFC in the SuperDraft after his senior year at Princeton. He began training with the club a month later and spent much of the season adapting to the new level of play at the professional level.

“The end of the season was pretty good to me,” said O’Toole. “I got a really good run of games in towards the end of the season. I finished the last three MLS games, played in the Campeones Cup, played against Atlas, and then got three good playoff games in. Obviously in terms of getting our team goals, we fell a little bit short although it was a really good turnaround from the beginning of the year and we made a really good push in the playoffs.”

O’Toole made his way into the lineup by the end of his first year to gain confidence heading into his second season. He played every minute of their final seven games to meet his personal goals and set the stage for this year.

“I felt really happy being in the team selection every week,” said O’Toole. “That was kind of the standard I wanted to bring in for myself, and that was kind of my goal. And this year it was to achieve a lot more starts and help the team in any role that the coaches felt fit for me.”

He was able to return to Princeton at the end of his MLS season. He was on hand for Princeton’s Senior Night to see a few former Tiger teammates, and enjoyed taking in the new Roberts Soccer Stadium. He also made the Tigers’ game at St. John’s.

“It’s been fun keeping in touch with the team,” said O’Toole. “I really love the Princeton soccer community, and I definitely think I’ll be going back for a bunch more games this fall.”

After a period of rest and well-needed vacation following his first season, O’Toole focused on keeping his fitness level high and improving his quickness and agility to become more dynamic to go with a toughened mental stance. O’Toole returned eager to impress, and has played more minutes from the outset of the season this year. He has remained in a left wingback position for NYCFC in their 3-4-3 formation, and also adjusted to taking on more defensive responsibility in a left back position when the club played a four-back formation. He has gotten more comfortable in his second year with the professional game and its demands, and his growth from last year has enabled him to play a larger role this season.

“Coming off the college game, there’s always going to be a period of adaptation to the league,” said O’Toole. “There’s definitely a speed of play element and also a mentality and longevity aspect too. The season is so long, whereas the college game is only a three-month schedule. So to be able to do it consistently and perform at a high level for 10 or 11 months — whatever the season demands — was probably the biggest challenge that I learned from last year. It’s about being patient with yourself if you have a bad week and being a bit gracious moving on to the next moment or next play. I think something that’s really helped me this year is not getting too high when things are going well and not getting too low when things are going bad. I think that’s helped me stay the course and make sure I’m putting in good performances on a weekly basis.”

One of his early highs was his play in a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls in mid-May. It was his third start of the season and O’Toole played all 90 minutes.

“It wasn’t the team result that we were hoping for, but I always love playing those games,” said O’Toole. “That was my former club — I played for their Academy teams — and so there’s always a little extra incentive and motivation that I carry into those games. I put in a pretty good performance in that game and just felt really good about that one, and I try to replicate that performance when I go into other games too.”

O’Toole feels more ready to play the faster pace of the professional level, but just as important is his ability to handle the training through a year. He knows how to treat the ups and downs of the game after getting through a full season plus.

“That was a big thing for me last year,” said O’Toole. “If I had a bad session on the ball or something because the training felt really quick, how would I respond? And often last year, it was difficult to put together a strong session after a bad one. But this year I’ve found it a bit easier to get up to speed, play with the ball quicker, and also, if I don’t have the best session, to be able to rebound the next day and be sharp on the ball. In that sense it’s slowed down, but it’s more knowing the level of the team and understanding that to keep up you have to play at a fast pace too.”

O’Toole has been impressed by the quick adjustment of another Princeton product, Malik Pinto. Pinto is in his first season in the MLS, and the two have faced each other when NYCFC played FC Cincinnati.

“Malik is one of my good friends,” said O’Toole. “We only got one year on the field together, but we really had two years when you take into account my gap year. He’s a really good friend of mine and I’m super happy and proud to see him doing so well in his first season. He’s already up to 15 or 16 appearances in the league, which is super impressive for a first-year and for such a young guy. It’s not necessarily a surprise because I know what he’s capable of on the field and I know how good his game is.”

The two are being strong representatives of Princeton and the Ivy League as young players in the MLS. Four more Ivy players were selected in the 2023 SuperDraft, and Cornell reached the Sweet Sixteen and Penn made the round of 32.

“It says a lot about the Ivy League and maybe just college soccer in general,” said O’Toole. “A lot of college kids come from backgrounds with really strong work ethics on and off the field and so I think if you give those guys a chance at the next level they can really make the most of it if given the opportunity. The Ivy League game has really been picking up too.”

O’Toole is hoping to help NYCFC pick it up over the second half of the season. He will have that chance because his growth since last year has enabled him to play a more prominent role in his second season of professional soccer.

“I think the best way to give a player confidence is to get minutes on the field; by doing that, it automatically gives you a confidence boost,” said O’Toole. “The more games you play, the more comfortable you feel on the ball because you’ve been in some high stress situations on the field. Being in any game scenarios, when you’re chasing a goal or defending the box late in the game when you have a lead, that gives you all the confidence you need to carry into the next game or the next practice. The club has been great in giving me those opportunities, and the coaches as well, just bringing me in for video sessions to look at things that can be improved in my game and also just giving positive feedback when things go right on the training pitch. It’s all been super helpful for me.”