NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: Kevin O’Toole controls the ball in game last fall during his senior season for the Princeton University men’s soccer team. O’Toole, who was named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year to help Princeton win the 2021 league crown, is currently playing for New York City Football Club (NYCFC)in Major League Soccer (MLS). Midfielder/forward O’Toole has yet to appear in an MLS game, but has been logging heavy minutes for NYCFC’s second team. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Kevin O’Toole got a jump start on his professional career. As his final semester at Princeton University approached this past January, the New York City Football Club (NYCFC) selected him with the 34th pick in the 2022 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft.
“I was kind of thrust into my career while I was finishing up school, which was definitely a challenge to balance the two, especially with the senior thesis,” said O’Toole, who was officially inked in March to a contract for the 2022 season with options for 2023 and 2024.“That was the hardest thing to get done while doing both. It definitely kept me busy for full days.”
O’Toole was one of two Ivy League players selected in this year’s draft along with Cornell’s Tyler Bagley. His selection and subsequent signing helped him fulfill a goal he had set upon entering Princeton.
“I always wanted to play professional soccer,” said O’Toole, a 5’10, 165-pound midfielder/forward. “That was a goal of mine. I know a lot of guys come into Princeton and get obsessed with the academics and then have lucrative career paths awaiting them when they graduate. I never veered from the soccer course and continued on playing and working hard through the school seasons to make sure I was in shape and performing well enough to get looks from professional scouts. That was always my goal. Maybe I was a bit overconfident that would happen because it is pretty rare for guys to make it out of the Ivy League. I was very fortunate to do it and very happy how it worked out.”
O’Toole heard before the draft through his agent and through Princeton University men’s soccer head coach Jim Barlow that there was interest in him from four or five MLS teams. He was coming off a season in which he returned from a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic to post seven goals and nine assists to claim his second Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year. The three-time first-team All-Ivy forward had family on hand at his home in Montclair, and they joined in a chorus of screams when his name popped up on the draft board.
“I didn’t know that New York City was interested until the morning of the draft,” said O’Toole, a two-time Ivy Offensive Player of the Year who culminated his Princeton career by winning the Roper Trophy given to the school’s top senior male athlete.
“I really had no clue they were in the picture until maybe a few hours before the draft and then when my name showed up next to the NYCFC logo, I knew it was real.”
It got more real after just one day off when he met the team to begin training. The spring semester of school had not even begun yet, but O’Toole wasn’t passing up a dream to start his professional career close to school and home.
“It definitely made it more special being so close to home and playing for a city that I identify with,” said O’Toole. “It also made finishing at Princeton a whole lot easier so I could commute to campus to attend classes when I had some time.”
O’Toole was thrown immediately into his pro playing career. The semester was still a week away when he headed to Orlando, Fla., to NYCFC’s training camp, then returned to resume training 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. most days with schoolwork to catch up on after each training session.
“I had a couple of great professors that I worked with and they were able to help me through their courses throughout the semester so in the event I missed a class or two, they were able to help me and meet with me over Zoom and assign me work so I was keeping up to speed with the class,” said O’Toole.
“They were fantastic and really enabled me to have a good semester in the classroom and also pursue my dream and play for this team.”
O’Toole has been adjusting to the new level of play. He has yet to appear in an MLS game, but has been logging heavy minutes for NYCFC’s second team.
“The speed of play is a lot quicker,” said O’Toole. “I found that out pretty early into preseason. I knew that I wasn’t going to have my best day every single day in training and that was definitely an adjustment. The mental side of the game, you have to be sharp to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward on the field every day. After that, it’s just about proving yourself in training every day and trying to get more and more playing time.”
O’Toole joined a club with high standards. NYCFC won the MLS Cup a year ago, but head coach Ronny Deila left the club in May and the Pigeons first team hasn’t won since then. Through 17 games, however, they sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 29 points, the same number as Montreal and only a point behind second-place Philadelphia. O’Toole has been gaining experience and staying sharp in second-team action, but is waiting for his opportunity to contribute more.
“My next goal is to play in my first MLS game,” said O’Toole. “I’ve played one game with the first team this year and that was in an Open Cup match. That was like a separate tournament that the team partakes in, and all the MLS sides do. My next goal is to appear in an MLS game against another MLS team. Hopefully that happens before the season ends. There’s plenty of games to go so I’m hopeful. Long-term goal is to be a consistent contributor to the team in any way I can.”
In making the transition to the pro game, O’Toole is dealing with the demands of the professional game. Practice and training, as expected, are more involved than in college.
“There’s a lot of time off the field, taking care of your body, getting in early to do mobility sessions, activation before training and a lift before or after training,” said O’Toole. “You didn’t really have that time in college for all that because you’re coming from class or getting to class after training. I think the time spent off the field in the gym has taken a step up definitely and I think it’s a really important aspect of the game to make sure your body is ready to play for a nine-month season.”
The time on the field practicing is not much different than what he was used to at Princeton, but O’Toole is working to improve his play to be able to contribute with the first team. He has to fine-tune his skills to fit the MLS style.
“Playing as an attacking player in the MLS, I think it requires playing really quick on the ball and playing in one or two touches,” said O’Toole. “That’s something that my coaching staff has encouraged me to work on, showing up in small pockets of space and being able to get the ball to the next guy and string the attack along. I think that’s something I’ve tried to work on. I think I have really good fitness and that’s something that’s propelled me. That’s something the team likes in me. The faster I can start to play, the better I will acclimate to the MLS game.”
O’Toole joins the MLS after a strong college career. He came to the Tigers from the Red Bulls Academy team (the Red Bulls’ first team currently leads the MLS Eastern Conference). He made adjustments in that transition as well, going from a left back with the Red Bulls to a forward or attacking midfielder with Princeton.
“I took that challenge on and relished it,” said O’Toole, who tallied 15 goals and 18 assists during his Princeton career, dishing out the fourth-most assists in program history. “I’ve always seen myself as an attack-minded player and I think I grew a lot having some freedom in the attack to take players on and combine up the field.”
The move pushed him to improve his attacking moves and opened a door to the pros. He finished in the top 20 in the country in assists as a senior and was a top threat for the Tigers.
“I was able to develop skills on the dribble and playing in pockets of space at Princeton that I didn’t necessarily get in my youth career,” said O’Toole. “That helped me transition into the pro game – just finding my role and finding my strengths in the field on the attack.”
O’Toole continues to strive for ways to improve and to develop into a player that NYCFC needs to have on the field. He is working to earn his way onto the field and fulfill his next goal of playing in an MLS game.
“Just finding little ways to stay motivated, and focusing on one or two things you can get better in training sessions to prove to the coaching staff that’s watching that you deserve more of a shot,” said O’Toole. “Staying mentally ready and taking every day as an opportunity to get better, and to show what you have is how I’ve tried to approach it in these last couple months as the season wanes on and guys go down with injury or opportunities arise to make sure I’m mentally ready and putting my best foot forward in training every day.”