The Southern Methodist University men’s soccer program has a long history of success, and Head Coach Kevin Hudson is the latest in a short but decades-long list of coaches in the program’s history.
Common knowledge says that consistency is the mark of a strong organization. A low turnover rate typically translates to a high level of success over a prolonged period of time, highlighting teams that do things right and lowlighting teams that have issues. The SMU Mustangs are a prime example of what consistency can mean to an organization, having employed just four coaches in the past 42 years, a very rare feat in any sport.
The latest in this hallowed line, taking over the job in 2015, is Coach Hudson. In his initial season with the Mustangs, Hudson led them to an impressive 15-3-4 record, winning the American Athletic Conference regular season title and making a run into the NCAA Tournament Round of 16. The philosophies established in the past 42 years, combined with Hudson’s own values, makes it easy to see why continued success is a hallmark of SMU’s program.
“At a place like SMU, we have to balance preparation in the summer through the PDL, with preparation in the summer through summer school, and we also have a very rigorous academic curriculum here,” Hudson told USLPDL.com. “Our goal is to progress these guys in three-and-a-half years towards graduation, and it takes summer school to do that. It also gives us the opportunity to get them all here together with the strength coach training and playing on their own in order to be physically prepared and sharp with their cohesiveness improving once they’ve played together for a month. It is a very fine balance. It takes all of those pieces, the PDL, summer school preparation at SMU, summer jobs and internships, rest, everything has to marry together for those guys to be fully prepared.”
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In 2015, that balance worked out nicely, and the Mustangs rode it to a great deal of success. But things didn’t quite work out the same way in 2016, as SMU struggled through a 6-9-1 campaign, the team’s worst record since 2013. It was a disappointment for the program, and one that was counter to the well-developed culture of winning long-established by coaches such as Jim Benedek and Schellas Hyndman.
While it would’ve been easy to wallow in that disappointment, Hudson took an alternate approach. During the offseason, he bunkered down, established what went wrong in 2016 and began to make his preparations to ensure there would be no repeat of those errors in 2017.
“I think in 2016, we were pretty complacent with the prior year’s success,” Hudson said. “We felt that 2015, getting to the sweet sixteen with a good group that had some success and won the league and all that. We came into 2016 thinking it would be easy, and we didn’t quite prepare properly for the 2016 season. We were a bit naïve and got caught complacent and dropped results we shouldn’t drop and got on a bad run and never really got going. That was a disappointment, so we made the changes starting in December to reestablish the foundation and standards of what we do here and got back to the way we want to play the game, the fundamentals we want to build this team around. I feel strongly about the history and tradition of this program. I’ve been a part of it for 15 or 16 years at this point, and there are a lot of people well before me and coaches before me who established this style of play and belief in how we play the game. We got back to those sort of details and we also reestablished in the spring the amount of work and physical preparation it takes to play a college season. We were much more physically prepared for this year than we were in 2016.”
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That offseason work has put SMU back into a strong position, and it has showed in the opening stretch of their 2017 campaign. In the team’s season-opening three game homestand, SMU came out firing on all cylinders. A 3-2 opening win against UC Davis was quickly followed-up by a 2-1 win over Oakland and a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Cornell. Just like that, the team had already achieved fully half of its 2016 win total and was off to a perfect 3-0-0 start.
But no team has ever recorded a perfect season in college soccer, and SMU’s 2017 campaign is no exception. On the team’s next two-game road-trip, SMU found themselves on the losing end of a difficult match against then-No. 1 Stanford. The team didn’t let it affect their momentum, however, as they subsequently bounced back with a trio of shutout victories over Santa Clara, Loyola University Maryland and Brown. Hudson stressed that while SMU ran into a good team in Stanford, all the necessary work had been taken care of in the offseason, and he trusted that work to carry them through.
“Stanford is a good team,” said Hudson. “We started with three wins, dropped that one to Stanford and then put three more together to get us to 6-1. Nothing changed after Stanford. We just continued to do the things we’ve done. We didn’t change tactically, we didn’t change personnel, we just ran up against a good team and all respect to them for the way that they played. We gave up two penalty kicks that game and they ended up winning 3-1. We didn’t play our best, and we’d love to have the opportunity to play that game again, but we got that result and we turned right around and played Santa Clara two days later on a Saturday night and won that one 1-0. And then had another two shutout wins as well, but nothing has changed. All the changes were made long before the season began in order to give ourselves the opportunity and preparation for where we are now.”
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Where the Mustangs are now consists of a 6-2 record, after a subsequent conference-opening loss to Tulsa this past Sunday, but they are feeling very good as the No. 19-ranked team nationally. With a continued slate of conference matches ahead and the team feeling good about the work they’ve put in, the Mustangs have a chance to put together a similar season to Hudson’s initial 2015 campaign.
Helping the team reach their current position are a pair of PDL players who’ve made big contributions for the Mustangs on the offensive end of the field. Mauro Cichero, a forward for the OKC Energy U23 in 2016, is having a brilliant start to his senior campaign. Potentially looking at a high draft selection this winter, the senior has been on fire for the Mustangs, leading the team in both goals with five and assists with four. Joining Cichero is Garrett McLaughlin, who played for the Energy U23 this past summer. The sophomore has made a name for himself this season as well, matching Cichero’s five goals and nabbing honors as TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Player of the Week last week.
“They’re both excellent players,” said Hudson. “Mauro has been more focused coming into 2017 than 2016. I think he’ll have an opportunity to play after college, it depends on his performances this year. He’s fully bought into the team and has done what he’s needed to do to prepare for the opportunity this fall. He’s willing to do whatever he has to do for the team, willing to play whatever position he has to play for this team to be as successful as possible. He’s off to and very good start, he’s an excellent player, and he’ll be a very high draft pick in the MLS draft this year. I really can’t say enough about the type of player he is and the difference he makes, there’s not a whole lot of college players who are like him. He has the ability at any moment to change a game.”
“Garrett has had a very good year,” he continued. “I don’t think he scored in preseason, and he didn’t score in the first game, but he’s got five goals in six games now. He’s really coming on. He’s got the ability to stretch teams and get in behind, but he’s also very clever and has a good knack for finding the right spots and scoring big goals. He scored the winner on Friday on a breakaway in transition. He scored the winner on Sunday on a header off a decent build-up. He pulled the defender away and got in front of him and hit a good header. Both of those guys will continue to get better and have really good years. They’re two of another handful of very good players we have that are pro prospects as well.”
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Given the level of success and hype around Cichero and the growing praise for McLaughlin, it’s easy to see how Hudson’s influence is helping to maintain the high standard of play that SMU has become known for over the past four decades. But Hudson is quick to point out that the base-level talent in American soccer is consistently growing, and that growth helps make his job that much easier.
“Players today are more prepared than ever for a college season,” Hudson said. “Guys who play for high-level club teams, in the academy or outside of the academy, who play the full August through May or June, they’re ready for the opportunity when they get here. Guys who do particularly well utilize the chance to be here for summer school and get to know the team before they start working with the soccer staff. That gives them a huge advantage. Guys today are very well coached and are physically better than they’ve ever been. Most young players have the technical foundation and tactical understanding, they get opportunities when they get here because if they’re ready, they’re ready”
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While the regular growth of youth academies and the evolution of academy systems in the U.S. into consistent talent-producing organizations, the presence of leagues like the PDL also play a large role in the success of young soccer players aiming to continue playing at a professional level. It’s a key component of that vaunted preparation that Hudson has worked hard to establish and continue at SMU.
“The opportunity to continue to train and play at a high level in the summer is very important in their preparation for the fall season,” said Hudson. “The ability to get meaningful games in a competitive environment will prepare those guys for the opportunity to make an impact in the fall season in college.”