SMU Mustangs welcome high expectations in 2011

The SMU men’s soccer team heads into the start of the 2011 season ranked No. 5 in the nation. Tim McClements’ Mustangs are also the preseason pick to repeat as regular-season champions in Conference USA. They also have the league’s preseason player of the year in senior midfielder/forward Arthur Ivo and last year’s C-USA Freshman of the Year Juan Castillo.

In short, there is much to be excited about on the Hilltop and specifically about what could go on at Westcott Field this fall. But such lofty expectations haven’t changed the approach of the face of the program.

“Well, the rankings mean nothing now. The most important thing is at the end of the year where you are,” McClements said. “We obviously have high expectations for the group and we try to hold ourselves to a high standard. We have a very, very difficult schedule. We’re just worrying about ourselves, preparing, getting better every day and making sure that we’re doing the right things in training to face William and Mary. After that, we’ll deal with the next set of games.”

SMU comes off a season where they finished 16-2-2 overall and advanced to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to fourth-ranked North Carolina on penalty kicks, denying them a trip to the 2010 Men’s College Cup.

McClements admits it’s a delicate balance in being proud of what the Mustangs accomplished in 2010 while also realizing that last year’s success has absolutely no bearing on what this current group could accomplish one year later.

“Obviously, we don’t forget about last year but it’s in the past. You’ve got to put it behind you and then you’ve got to move on. We had a great run,” the SMU head coach said. “We’re very proud of the steps forward that we made but that doesn’t have any bearing on this year or this year’s schedule, which is totally different than last year’s schedule. We have our work cut out for us.”

That schedule begins on Saturday night when the Ponies host William and Mary, a team they defeated in the second round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament at Westcott Field. SMU had a pair of scrimmages during preseason and for the most part, their coach feels like they’re ready.

“You never feel you’re ready but with one week of preseason, you just have a lot you’ve got to cram into a small space. But it was nice to have two games to kind of get things worked out, to get an opportunity to look at players in a couple of different spots and also the new players. That was great,” McClements said.

The Mustangs have a number of strengths, but on the attacking side of things, it all starts with the return of Ivo and Castillo, who combined for 20 goals and nine assists in 2010. While their coach is glad to have them back, he also knows he can expect opposing clubs to focus on shutting them down this fall.

Of course, taking Ivo and/or Castillo out of the equation would open the door for other players to contribute on offense and there is no shortage of players who could step up for SMU this fall when it comes to scoring goals or providing assists. Sophomores Robbie Derschang (5 goals, 5 assists) and Zach Barnes (5 goals) are two such candidates.

“It [having Castillo and Ivo back] gives you two weapons right off the bat that people know they have to deal with. I think there are some other players that will benefit from that. They get a lot of interest from the defenders and I think that our midfielders pick up points because the defenders are keying up on them,” McClements said. “I think that the tandem is great to have. They’ve been working well together. We just hope they continue where they left off last year at the end of the year.”

An additional strength for SMU is a back four that returns largely intact as three of four starters are back from last year. The lone question mark is at right back where Leone Cruz, who was a second-round pick in the 2011 MLS Super Draft, has departed.

“We want to try to keep our back four together as much as we can. Diogo [de Almeida] and Adam Still did a great job last year in the center and Ian Kalis out wide left. We’re trying to figure out who can figure in at the right back position. We’ve gone through a couple of different players,” McClements said. “Some of the kids are on the squad and some of the kids are new players that have come in. But I think that we feel pretty comfortable that we can fill that without a shift of other players.”

However, Cruz isn’t the only notable loss as SMU also lost talented attacker Josue Soto (7 goals, 7 assists) to MLS as he signed a contract with Houston. Not only will they both be missed for their contributions between the lines, but their absence will also be felt in the room.

“Well, their technical ability and tactical awareness are tough to replace but their leadership is the most difficult thing. Fortunately for us, we have guys that step up and fill those roles,” McClements said. “Adam Still’s been our captain since the spring and has done a great job. We’ll probably add another captain here shortly. We’re taking our time with that announcement. We have really good senior leadership and in the junior class as well.”

The other big loss was goalkeeper Craig Hill, who was 16-2-2 with a goals-against-average of 1.06 and four clean sheets in 22 games for last year’s squad. The race for the top spot in goal remains a hotly-contested one and a battle that could very well go down the wire just prior to Saturday night’s season opener on the Hilltop.

“We’re really excited about our goalkeeping situation. It’s just going to be a battle. We have Jaime Ibarra and Juan Robles back, both of those are very steady goalkeepers and we have a lot of faith in them,” McClements said. “We have two freshmen kids that came in this year and they’re challenging as well. It’s really going to be a toss-up. We’re using this last week to evaluate and see who starts. I don’t think in any person we could pick we’d go wrong.”

One reason why the Ponies had so much success in 2010 was partly due to the fact that they were unbeatable at home, with an 8-0-1 mark at Westcott. That’s clearly a bit of history trend their head coach wants to see repeat itself again this fall.

“Well, you want to get your home points. That’s for sure and it’s nice to play [at home]. Our guys really enjoy playing for our home crowd,” McClements said. “Our attendance picked up a great deal last year, especially toward the end of the year. We hope with that as well that continues to increase and it gives us a home-field advantage, having the fans behind you with your family and loved ones getting a chance to watch you play.”