Tiger Men’s Soccer Facing Stern Tests from the Start, Aiming to Steel Itself for the Ivy League Battles Ahead
HARRY SITUATION: Princeton University men’s soccer player Harry Roberts heads upfield in a game last season. Junior Roberts brings versatility to the Tigers as he can play both forward and defender. Princeton opens its 2023 season by hosting Rutgers on September 1. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
As the Princeton University men’s soccer team heads into the 2023 season, it is facing some stern tests from the get-go.
“I think we have the hardest schedule we have ever had — we have six teams in the preseason Top 20 on our schedule,” said Princeton head coach Jim Barlow, whose team hosts Rutgers on September 1 and Duke on September 4 to get the season underway. “We start off with the defending Big 10 champs and the No 4 team in the country on Monday.”
With the Ivy League holding its inaugural postseason tournament this year that will include the top four finishers in the league standings with victor earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Barlow is hoping that the gauntlet of tough foes will steel his squad for the Ivy League battles ahead.
“The guys enjoy playing against the best teams that we can find, it makes you better,” said Barlow. “Now with the conference tournament, if we can get six or seven games in against the best teams in the country we should be battle-tested for the Ivy games.”
Coming off a 2022 season which saw the Tigers go 6-6-4 overall and 1-3-3 Ivy, Barlow views the tournament as a potential game changer in a league known for its parity.
“The ties never really helped you in our league because it is three points for a win and one point for a tie; it will be interesting to see how or if that changes now that there is a conference tournament,” said Barlow. “The fact that the team goes to the NCAA tournament is the team that wins the tournament, it does add the potential to change the mentality for teams that might know or think that they are out of the NCAA at-large picture. They can put all of their energy into just making the top four and then get into the tournament with two wins or two ties that go to shootouts. It will be really interesting to see how it plays out.”
Barlow believes that Princeton has the firepower at forward to make things interesting. The options up top for the Tigers include senior Walker Gillespie (6 goals, 1 assist in 2022), junior Nico Nee (1 assist), sophomore Danny Ittycheria (1 goal, 3 assists), sophomore Will Francis, senior Spencer Fleurant, senior Logan Oyama (1 assist), junior Harry Roberts (1 assist), senior Ryan Winkler (1 assist), and a pair of freshmen, Kevin Kelley and Ian Nunez.
“We have maybe seven or eight guys who could play one of the three frontrunner spots right now,” said Barlow. “There is not a lot of separation and on any given day — some of them are stepping up and doing better than others. Walker is one of the guys that we are hoping can get us goals. He is doing well. Nico has emerged as a really talented player in our league. Danny has improved a tremendous amount since last year and is a fast, athletic forward. Will missed just about all of last fall, he had injuries and mono. He was a really effective attacking player for us in the spring. Spencer has some potential to get us some goals. Logan has had moments where he has looked really dangerous. Harry has played well. Ryan is finally back to full health — he is a guy who can score goals. Kevin and Ian are both dangerous attacking players. It is really early for me to have a sense of how it is all going to pan out.”
At midfield, the Tigers will be featuring sophomore Jack Jasinski (4 assists), sophomore Gabriel Duchovny (1 goal), sophomore Jack Hunt, and freshman Liam Beckwith.
“It is going to be a challenge to get our midfield as mobile and effective and connected and contribute to the attack,” said Barlow, noting that James Wangsness is rebounding from injury and could return late in the season and that Malik Pinto bypassed his senior season to play for FC Cincinnati in the MLS.
“The way that we play, the midfield is huge so we will see. Jack Jasinski has done well so far, he is probably going to be in there. Of the attacking guys, Nico might find himself in the midfield. Gabriel has had a good preseason. Jack Hunt has had a good preseason. Both of these guys played some last year, Gabriel more than Jack but they are both solid midfielders. Liam has done well and can play in the middle also. Then there is also the possibility of some of the other guys up the field moving to the midfield, and some guys moving from the back to the midfield.”
Along the backline, sophomore Giuliano Whitchurch, sophomore Stephen Duncan, junior Issa Mudashiru, senior Francis Akomeah (1 goal, 1 assist), senior Whit Gamblin, and sophomore Sam Vigilante will be holding the fort for the Tigers.
“Giuliano is going to be a really important player for us, he had a great first year for us last year,” said Barlow. “Stephen is back after not playing last fall. Issa, who was great for us two years ago and was injured most of last year, is back. Francis is back — he has played a lot for us also. Whit is a center back. Sam played right back a decent amount in the spring. I think we are going to be tough, competitive, and organized in the back and will be hard to score on.”
The Tigers boast a pair of veteran goalies in juniors William Watson (a 1.57 goals against average and .685 save percentage in 12 games last year) and Khamari Hadaway (1.55 goals against average, .692 save percentage in 7 games).
“Watson had a pretty good year and Khamari had a great spring so it is neck and neck,” said Barlow. “We split them in our scrimmage against Penn last night and they were both very good. I would think that last night and for parts of preseason, it is maybe our strongest position. They are both doing very well.”
While Barlow is still mixing and matching his players, he believes the Tigers possess the talent to develop into a strong team.
“I do think we have a lot of very good pieces; it is just in one week’s time there hasn’t been much separation to be able to say here is the first 11,” said Barlow. “We have to grind our games against really, really difficult opponents. To do that, we have got to be really, really hard to score on. We have to be disciplined and capable of capitalizing on transitions, on counter attacks as a result of our good defending up the field. We have to put good plays together with some urgency to use our speed and pace out wide. It is a really hard-working, focused group. They are eager to get back into the mix to win an Ivy title.”