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Kevin O’Toole ’22: From Princeton pipe dream to the pros

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Imagine a scenario where a Princeton University senior is in the midst of completing their thesis to earn their diploma while simultaneously trying to make the roster of a professional sports team. To most, this may sound like a strange combination of a dream and a nightmare. But for Kevin O’Toole ’22, this was his reality during the spring of 2022. 

After an illustrious soccer career at Princeton, one that included three First Team All-Ivy selections, two Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year awards, and two Ivy League championships, O’Toole was drafted 34th overall in the 2022 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft by New York City FC on Jan. 11. 

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Draft night was the start of a hectic couple of months for O’Toole. 

“I was basically with the team beginning January 14,” he said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “And then, a few days later we were off to preseason in Florida.”

He described the difficulties of playing professional soccer and completing his independent work at Princeton at the same time. 

“It was a bit of bouncing back and forth from Princeton to New York,” he told the ‘Prince.’ “And then I had nice professors who, you know, I was able to Zoom into their classes at the end of the year, which was great.”

O’Toole, a North Jersey native, said that being drafted by New York City FC was convenient because he was able to stay close to home and close to Princeton. 

“The fact that I was local worked out really well,” O’Toole said. “It’s also really cool to be kind of playing for my home city.”

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The goal of becoming a professional athlete is often a dream for most children who grow up playing sports, but it is rarely the case that such dreams become a reality. Even once athletes reach college, the odds are not in their favor. For O’Toole, he described the goal of going professional as a “pipe dream.”

O’Toole trained with the New York Red Bulls Academy throughout high school and had the opportunity to forgo a college career and play on a professional level. 

“I think I kind of flirted with the idea of playing professionally before college,” he said. “But, I don’t think I would have been ready at that point.”

O’Toole credits working with the Academy during high school in making his professional dream feel a bit more real. He also noted that playing in college allowed him to develop his game more and grow physically as well.

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Despite the benefits of playing at Princeton, O’Toole’s collegiate career was not all smooth-sailing: when the COVID-19 pandemic hit during the spring of his junior year, it meant his upcoming 2020 senior season was up in the air. With too many unknowns, O’Toole decided to take the year off from Princeton and focus on training instead. 

“The fall [of 2020] was kind of low-key. There weren’t many opportunities to play with any teams because everyone was kind of shut down with COVID-19,” he explained. “But then when the spring came around, I was able to train with the Red Bulls second team.” 

Although he was unable to play in any games as part of the Red Bulls due to NCAA eligibility rules, O’Toole says playing with the team allowed him to stay sharp and work on his game. 

“I think it was definitely a big reason why I had a pretty good senior year,” O’Toole said.

During his senior year, O’Toole was a unanimous First Team All-Ivy selection and had the most goals and assists in the Ivy League during conference play. He helped lead the Tigers to a 7–0 Ivy League record and an eventual league championship. 

“That’s something I’ll remember forever,” O’Toole said. 

The MLS Development Academies, of which the Red Bulls Academy is part of, works to serve as a pipeline for amateur players to make it to the professional level. MLS teams have the exclusive rights to sign their Academy players, after which they are put up for the draft. The New York Red Bulls opted not to sign O’Toole after his time with their Academy team, which meant he would be eligible for the draft. 

“It was kind of ironic when I was drafted to New York City because that’s Red Bulls’ biggest rival,” O’Toole explained. 

Upon being drafted, it is no guarantee that you will make the team’s final roster, yet O’Toole was able to do well enough in tryouts to earn a spot. On March 7, New York City FC announced that O’Toole had signed a contract with the club through the 2022 season. 

O’Toole joined the club after an incredibly successful campaign by the team, which culminated in New York City FC winning the 2021 MLS Cup. During his first professional season, O’Toole had to battle through injuries and struggled to get consistent playing time. However, in recent games, he has started to see the field more. 

“I’ve started to get some playing time these last few games, which has been amazing,” he noted.

The first of these games was the 2022 Campeones Cup, where the winner of the previous season’s MLS Cup plays the winner of Liga MX, the top division of Mexican soccer, in a one-off match. In the 2022 edition, New York City FC defeated Mexican-league winner Atlas FC 2–0 on Sept. 14 to win the trophy.

The second game referenced by O’Toole is the Hudson River Derby, the name given to the fiercely contested rivalry between MLS clubs New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls. In the most recent meeting between these two teams on Sept. 17, New York City FC won 2–0. 

O’Toole played all 90 minutes in both major games, despite not having played a single minute in an MLS game until the Campeones Cup.

“I found out I was starting that game and I was completely shocked,” he said. “I really did not expect to be starting at all and honestly didn’t really expect to be getting any time at all in this first year.” 

His strong performances throughout both games allowed him to play the full 90 minutes, being deployed on the left side of the midfield as a left wingback. O’Toole explained that taking the field for the first time at Yankee Stadium, where New York City FC play their home games, was “pretty surreal.”

Despite his success as a professional player, O’Toole has not forgotten Princeton. 

“I’ve been watching most of the games. It’s fun,” he said. 

O’Toole has attended three men’s soccer games so far this season. The games he has not been able to attend he watched on television. He also hopes to return to campus during his off-season to watch some more soccer matches. 

O’Toole and New York City FC are now focused on the upcoming MLS Cup Playoffs, which begin on Oct. 15. New York City FC are positioned to be the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs, the same spot they were when they won it all in 2021. 

“It’s coming at a pretty cool time, because I’m seeing some more playing time. So I hope to be involved in those games, which would be pretty special,“ O’Toole said.

Kameron Wolters is a staff writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at kw9217@princeton.edu or on Instagram at @kam.wolters.

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