DALLAS -- The SMU men's soccer team has already faced some formidable foes this spring with matches against Major League Soccer sides FC Dallas and Houston. On Saturday, the Mustangs return to the Bayou City for the second time this spring to face North Carolina, a club that was in the 2009 NCAA Men's College Cup.
It's a match Ponies head coach Tim McClements is excited about playing.
"It's always a great opportunity to play with such high caliber. In the spring, it's obviously a good measuring stick," McClements said. "The spring is the spring. You're obviously dealing with players that are coming back from injuries and you don't have the new players that are joining your team. It's great to go and play the best competition that you can. North Carolina has had a lot of success in recent years."
Even before this spring, SMU has been a regular visitor to the city.
"We work with several clubs down in Houston. Not that we work for them but what will happen is they'll want to put on a game down there," the SMU coach said. "The only two (college) teams in the state are ourselves and Houston Baptist. Probably once a year, they (one of the clubs) will call us and say they're interested in putting on an event that is tied with a tournament or something like that. They'll bring in two college teams. Before Houston Baptist was down there, we were the only one in the state. In preseason a few years back, we played Army. We've also played New Mexico. This one just happened to be in the spring with the club down south."
SMU comes off a season where they finished 6-8-2 overall. Gone from that team is first-team All-Conference USA performer Dane Saintus, who was drafted by FCD. Saintus led the team in scoring with eight goals and five assists. Also departed is Paulo da Silva, who had five goals and two assists. He spent time in camp with FCD this spring.
While replacing his two top scorers might appear daunting, McClements knows he will have plenty of options once fall practice begins.
"The spring is always about opportunity. Players have to have the opportunity to get out on the field," he said. "It's early for us. We've played the two MLS teams and Houston Baptist. We've just been tinkering with different things. We're obviously happy with the players that we have and with the players that are coming in. Right now, we haven't solidified anything for the fall but we're answering a lot of questions."
And heading back to Houston is a nice bonus for the three Houston-area players on his roster: freshman midfielder/forward Blake Milton, junior midfielder Josue Soto, who had two goals and three assists in 2009, and redshirt sophomore midfielder/forward Pana Vasquez.
"It's great because in our recruiting, the Metroplex is very important to us as is the whole state of Texas. Most of our players are from the state of Texas whether it be from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or wherever throughout the state," McClements said. "It's really a great opportunity for our players to showcase themselves in front of a different set of fans that we have. And it's nice for our Houston-based players to get a chance to go home and play in front of their parents."
However, SMU does return two solid contributors in the back. Right back TJ Nelson was a member of the league's all-freshman team while the starter at left back, sophomore Ian Kalis, a Duke transfer, earned third-team all-conference honors. It's a combination McClements is glad to have to help anchor his defense.
"Yeah, Ian (Kalis) has been great. TJ Nelson, he's been great," the SMU coach said. We've played him (Kalis) in the midfield this spring a great deal. TJ (Nelson) is one of those players I think you can put him almost anywhere except in goal. He's a little short. He's just a good player anywhere you put him. He featured a lot at right back for us this year. And then when he got hurt, it really was difficult for us losing him. We know he can play in the back. It's a time of opportunity, so we've moved him in a few different spots. We've played him in central midfield and out wide right. We just want to make sure that we're going into the fall with as many options as we can."
Another key returnee is sophomore midfielder/defender Payton Hickey, a second team all-league selection who led the Ponies with nine assists last fall. Hickey moved to the midfield last fall after playing in the back as a freshman. Junior defensive midfielder Kekoa Osorio was also an all-league selection and the only Mustang to start all 16 games last fall.
"Yeah, he (Hickey) is one of those players that has just come in every day and gets better in every fall and every spring. He works on adding little things to his game," McClements said. "Playing on the left side, he's obviously a left-sided player but he works so well with Kalis. We're able to get Kalis out of the back and into the attack a little more because of that relationship that they have. I think that he's really done a great job. He's been a pleasant surprise the whole time that he's been here. Him working in combination with Kalis has really been a great thing for us."