Men’s Soccer: The Prince who was promised: Nigel Prince’s ascension to Northwestern’s defensive throne

Sophomore defender Nigel Prince works the ball out of the back.
Sophomore defender Nigel Prince works the ball out of the back.
Daily file photo by Jorge Melendez

When coach Russell Payne took the helm at Northwestern in May 2021, he inherited a program in limbo. The Wildcats hadn’t topped the Big Ten regular season table since 2012, making their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.

Payne and his staff hit the recruiting trail with ferocity, targeting blue-chip recruits that could immediately step into the fold and alter the team’s trajectory for years to come. He found that in a 6-foot-2 center back who seldom backed down from a defensive duel — now-sophomore defender Nigel Prince.

“We saw a guy that as a junior was playing for Atlanta United’s second team, and he loved defending, winning balls (and) playing balls,” Payne said. “Developmentally, he was going to continue to work on his passing.”

As fate would have it, Prince’s first official visit took him to NU. The Atlanta native said he instantly fell in love with campus, hitting it off with the players and coaching staff.

Payne’s pitch to Prince was simple — he had a chance to help instill a new, winning culture for the ‘Cats.

“Historically we haven’t been on the up-and-up, so I want to be a part of creating something new and earning our respect back,” Prince said. 

After evaluating his collegiate options on a series of solo visits, the Atlanta United youth product opted to trade in the Major League Soccer club’s red and black for purple and white.

Payne said Prince’s commitment was a game-changer in building what was named the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class by Top Drawer Soccer.

“He honestly started that domino effect,” Payne said. “He was one of our first signees that was one of the highest ranked recruits (nationally). (Prince) got other guys turning their attention towards us and away from ACC schools (and) other Big Ten schools.”

Now, just two seasons into his collegiate career, Prince’s presence on the team’s backline has been pivotal to Payne’s renaissance, propelling the group to unforeseen heights.


Prince fell in love with the game when he first laced up his boots. Beginning his career as a forward at a local club, two former professionals helped guide him to his positional mainstay. 

Richard Money and Carlos Bocanegra, both of whom played defense in the English Premier League, placed Prince on defense once he tried out for a newly-formed club. At the time, Atlanta United was just a concept — and had unveiled its crest less than a year earlier.

Under the tutelage of Money, Bocanegra and current South Carolina coach Tony Annan, Prince joined the inaugural side for the 2016 Generation Adidas Cup.

From U-12 onward, Prince captained his youth side, often playing several age years up because of his elite size and composure. For Atlanta United academy coach Steven Covino, Prince instantly commanded respect.

“He was one of those guys that did a really good job of leading by example — always one of the hardest working guys at training,” Covino said. “Off the field, he was first to help the coach with equipment — first to pick up the cones. You could tell he just lived and breathed the game.”

Soccer showed Prince much of the world, projecting the possibilities and pathways his skillset opened up. He’d play in Europe and South America, even receiving a Jamaica U-20 national camp callup to represent his “mom’s homeland.”

While Prince’s family initially believed the defender would forgo college and head straight for the professional ranks, careful consideration led him to take his talents to the D-I level.

Covino shared the sentiment, comparing Prince to Miles Robinson, a former Syracuse star who solidified a consistent starting role for Atlanta United and made 27 appearances for the United States Men’s National Team.

“If he continues to progress and continues to show how dominant he can be in college soccer, he’ll start to gain a repertoire of being a professional in the near future,” Covino said. “A lot of professional teams will come calling for him.


Prior to his freshman season, Prince had several more experienced center backs to beat out for a starting role. It would take the defender just one game to earn a slot in Payne’s initial 11.

He started 12 games in a difficult season for the ‘Cats, but Payne challenged him to stay hungry and raise the bar in the offseason.

“For Nigel, it was just about maturity,” Payne said. “He had a lot of really good performances as a freshman, but the comprehensive approach to excellence just wasn’t there.”

Prince more than met his coach’s command, putting in the necessary on-field work and joining the team’s leadership council as just a sophomore. After the coaching staff told him they were concerned about his ability to go the full 90 minutes, Prince proved the proposition dead wrong, playing all but six minutes across 15 games this season.

Associate head coach Krystian Witkowski, who helps spearhead the staff’s recruiting strategy, said the sophomore has grown leaps and bounds since he first arrived on campus.

“He’s not only matured tactically, but off the field — the way he carries himself as a professional student athlete where he takes care of his body, he comes for film (and) he’s just become a student of the game,” Witkowski said. “He understands that he’s nowhere near where his potential may be.”


With just two games remaining in the conference slate, Prince and NU entered a must-win matchup against Indiana on Tuesday. In the pinnacle point of Prince’s promising tenure thus far, the defender dealt the game’s fatal first-half blow with a flick of his head.

The ‘Cats had endured 20 minutes of action in their own defensive third and were lucky to still be deadlocked at zero when graduate student defender Reese Mayer prepared to launch a long throw toward the Hoosiers’ box.

At the edge of the six, Prince lept beyond his marker. With his back toward goal, the sophomore flicked a header just beyond the keeper’s grasp, grabbing a go-ahead goal against the run of play.

“It’s about time,” Prince said of his first career goal. “I’ve had a couple of close ones, so it was good to finally get one.”

Following Prince’s picture perfect imprint on the scoreline, NU needed to lock in and protect its slim lead for more than 65 minutes. 

And, in what may very well become dubbed the “Nigel Prince Game,” the center back thwarted opposing attackers time and time again, solidifying the clean sheet and a 1-0 victory.

“He’s ready to put his body on the line for the team,” Witkowski said. “We wanted someone that was going to anchor the backline and give everything to the team — one defensive play at a time — but he does that every time for us.”

The win catapulted the ‘Cats into a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten standings with No. 16 Michigan State and Penn State. With a lone road trip to Michigan left in the regular season slate, a share of, if not an outright conference title is on the line.

Prince said it’s a dream scenario for his team.

“You always hope for these times, (but) I wouldn’t think we’d be here, honestly,” Prince said. “That’s just a testament to coach, a testament to our hard work in the offseason. We’re flying right now.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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