Michael O’Neill builds new culture at NIU women’s soccer

DeKALB – First-year women’s soccer head coach Michael O’Neill enters the spotlight as he establishes a new identity for the NIU women’s soccer program.

O’Neill was hired to be the head coach of the women’s soccer program on March 14. He left Saginaw Valley State University after leading their women’s program for eight years. O’Neill finished his tenure at Saginaw Valley State with 77 wins and three NCAA Tournament appearances, after inheriting a program that consistently finished below .500 each season.

O’Neill was able to accrue 10 wins in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Cardinals, finishing the 2017 season with an appearance in the GLIAC Tournament Final. He also led Saginaw Valley State to 12 wins in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, according to NIU.

Long before his impressive tenure at Saginaw Valley and hiring at NIU, O’Neill began his soccer journey in Luton, England. Arsenal F.C., one of the most well known soccer teams in England, played a huge role in cultivating his love for the game.

“In England, all we do is live, breathe, and sleep soccer,” O’Neill said. “My parents, my dad mainly and my grandparents are all big into soccer. My family picked a team, Arsenal, and found a love for the game pretty early in my career.”

O’Neill was often placed in kids’ soccer camps by his parents and eventually began playing for his local team, Luton Town, a team that played one rank below the professional tier in England. The Luton Town Hatters play in the English Football League, according to the English Football League’s website.

After a few years of playing semi-professional soccer in England, O’Neill realized that he wanted to pursue soccer, but in a different country.

“I wanted to pursue the American dream, as we call it back home,” O’Neill said. “I wanted to make things work (in America) from a soccer standpoint, and fortunately, I ended up with a scholarship here.”

O’Neill received a scholarship from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio. He played for four years at Tiffin and won three GLIAC championships. O’Neill finished his college playing career ranked third in career assists in school history at 32. He also earned his bachelor’s degree in Sports and Recreation Management from Tiffin in 2012, according to NIU.

O’Neill’s love for the game continued to flourish after his college playing days. He was hired by Saginaw Valley State in 2012 as an assistant coach with the men’s soccer program. O’Neill helped the Cardinals to an 18-win season and an appearance in the NCAA Division II National Championship game, the first in program history, according to NIU.

After just one season with the SVSU men’s soccer program, O’Neill was hired as the head coach of the Cardinals’ women soccer team in 2014. O’Neill’s aforementioned accolades helped him land his current position as head coach of NIU women’s soccer, where he has felt the most comfortable in his career.

“It’s been a really enjoyable process,” O’Neill said. “My family and I fell in love with the Sycamore and DeKalb area. So it just felt right. I’m glad that they (NIU) have taken a chance with me and I’m hopeful to pay that decision off here as we look to build this program.”

O’Neill has had a great start to his NIU coaching career, leading the Huskies to a 3-2-2 start through their first seven games. NIU’s four-game unbeaten streak to start the season was their best start since 2008, where the women’s soccer team began the year on an eight-game unbeaten streak.

The players have noticed sizable improvements in the way the team is being run under the new regime, including pace of play and defensive intensity. Returning players like fifth-year senior defender Kylee Hermeyer have expressed their appreciation for the new coaching staff.

“He (O’Neill) does nothing but support us,” Hermeyer said. “He gives us reasons to not hang our heads, and it just shows that he always believes in us.”

“He’s very passionate, he cares about you and he wants the best out of you,” junior forward Reegan Kingpavong said. “Most coaches, when you lose a game, they would be mad or disappointed. Instead of beating us down, he’s very uplifting and almost comforting.”

Off the field, O’Neill has been described as a family man and an extremely caring individual.

“I think it’s awesome that he’s brought his wife and daughters to a lot of our team meetings,” Hermeyer said. “Every day at practice he’s always doing something new and something funny.”

O’Neill and the new coaching staff look to continue the Huskies’ hot start, with the team now holding a 3-2-2 record. The Huskies’ next match will be against Western Michigan University at home at 7 p.m. on Sept. 22. This upcoming match marks the beginning of Mid-American Conference play for NIU. The game will be streamed on NIU All-Access.