Southern Methodist's soccer coach, Jim Benedek, couldn't find the keys to one of the two team vans. An hour before SMU's game with the University of Texas last Saturday, he was standing in a motel parking lot in Austin, slapping his pockets.
"You've got them," he yelled to Assistant Coach Micky Ashmore.
"You drove, Jim," Ashmore hollered back.
"Oh, God, here we go again," sighed a player as he and his teammates climbed out of the van. Benedek looked at the sky and sighed, too. "Why can't this team do anything smooth?" he asked.
Smooth, no. Successful, yes. At the start of the season, the NCAA's soccer powers might have been forgiven for wondering "SM Who?" Before long, they had the answer. Ranked third nationally for a good part of the season, the Mustangs had compiled a 14-1-1 record, the best in the NCAA's powerful Midwest region, going into their final regular game last week. Along the way, they had upset second-ranked Indiana and Seattle Pacific University. Their van keys eventually turned up (they were in the other van), and Benedek's men got past Texas 3-2. So, smooth as a train wreck, the Mustangs were bound for postseason play for the first time in the five-year history of soccer at the school.
"I think they'll do very well in the playoffs," said Indiana Coach Jerry Yeagley. "They're physical but clean. When you play them you know by the bruises that you've been in a game. And that damn defensive style of theirs tears down opponents psychologically."
When Hungarian-born Jim Benedek took the reins at SMU in 1974—he had played at Ithaca College and spent four years with the North American Soccer League's Dallas Tornado—soccer was a club sport without varsity standing. Players dressed an hour before games and then helped set up portable stands on SMU's soccer pitch, the outfield of the baseball diamond.
In his first year, Benedek's Mustangs managed to knock off a couple of pretty good teams. They have improved steadily ever since. Last year, with a 14-1-1 record, they almost made the playoffs.
Most of the team comes from the Dallas area, not heretofore known as one of the hotbeds of American soccer. "This is the land of Doak Walker and Kyle Rote—I mean Kyle Rote Sr., the football player. This is Dallas Cowboy turf," says Benedek, a compact, excitable man whose Hungarian accent gets stronger as he becomes emotional. "But the Dallas Tornado started promoting youth soccer in 1970, and now there are 300,000 kids playing the game here. I only have three scholarships; how can I recruit out of town?"
Benedek's team includes three Iranians, a Scotsman and a Mexican, but 14 of the Mustangs are Big D products. And no one is more purely Texas than the team's only superstar, All-America Goalkeeper Randy Phillips. A toothpick-chewing, 6'1", rawboned redhead, Phillips had a superb .55 goals-against average and logged 10 shutouts in the 17-game season.
"I'm not exactly a 'good ole boy,' " the 20-year-old junior drawls. "But I'm sure 'nuff Texan. Heck, a lot of us on the team went to the same high school, W. T. White, right there in Dallas."
Phillips has marvelous reflexes and delivers a drumfire of advice to his defenders. He should have a good shot at the pros, says Yeagley. "He shut us out. The only one this year. I can't believe it." Adds Seattle Pacific Coach Cliff McCrath, "I'd like to tie Phillips up somewhere until his eligibility has run out. But he's one of the best keepers I've seen in college soccer." Phillips gets his hair cut every year whether he needs it or not and prefers fishing for bass and shooting quail to the fraternity beer blast. But like his fellow Mustangs, he is a certified Frisbee freak.
The Mustangs play Frisbee anywhere they happen to be: in airports, buses, vans, hallways, rooms and showers. Even the Iranians have managed to master the two-wall carom, the ceiling-floor skip, the air-bounce and the dreaded sidearm thumb toss. But you would be wrong to think that they're a nice bunch of guys left over from some flower-power revival. The Mustangs like to kick butts and take names.
"I don't think we're very physical," says Scots Forward Davie Williamson. "But you must let the other lads know you're there, mustn't you?"
"Every team is playing harder soccer this year," says Benedek. "The level of play is so far up in the NCAA over last year that more professional touches, like physical play, are everywhere. We're part of a trend."
Says Phillips, "Well, if some guy hits me, I'm not going to turn the other cheek, I'm going to go for the big arteries."
Capitalizing on their strength with hip and elbow, the Mustangs play a brand of soccer that frustrates and sometimes enrages opponents. Working from a 4-3-3 formation, they defend to the death.
"Most college soccer teams are taught to win the ball at midfield," says Benedek. "They gallop like horses. We let them have it. Why exhaust yourself? And then they turn, see 20 open yards and think they're in heaven. Then they see our defensive wall. Ha! Surprise, guys!"
Using three backs and a sweeper, SMU packs its goal area, forcing opponents to bring up more midfielders to attack.
"We've developed a fast break," says Benedek, "where our backs clear out to our forwards, who try to slip behind the other defense. Then they're shorthanded back there and we can score."
The SMU now-you-see-it-now-you-don't style of play, plus that physicality, has sometimes caused Mustang opponents to go slightly berserk. In an SMU game earlier last week with Midwest rival Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville—a perennial soccer power, ranked fourth this season—the score was deadlocked 1-1 after two overtimes. There followed a brawl.
Someone slugged someone, and someone retaliated. A bench-clearing melee resulted, with fans included. The affair is reported to be under NCAA scrutiny.
"Some dude hit me," says Phillips with a smile, "so I grabbed a piece of chin and hit it."
"I never want to go back to Edwardsville," says Benedek. "My God, it was like a riot in Europe. Can you imagine? The crowd, all those nice moms and dads, were throwing their drinks on me and cursing. I never heard such language! It was like Roller Derby."
Although Texas plays club soccer, lacking NCAA status, last Saturday's game was critical for SMU. Texas is a member of the Southwest Conference, and a convincing win would help secure a bye for the Mustangs in the first round of the playoffs. More important, the bye would give the Mustangs the home-field advantage in the second round, when they would probably face the winner of the SIU-St. Louis University match. Those teams are strong at home.
Indignant after getting a look at the field they would be playing on against Texas—a rock-hard patch of dirt tufted with cleat-snaring little hillocks of long grass—the Mustangs were further annoyed when they discovered they had been stuffed into a tiny locker room in the Longhorns' multimillion-dollar athletic center. The room was about large enough for a Ping-Pong game. The final straw was no towels. Phillips scratched his head. "They're being unfriendly," he said. "They need a lesson."
But missing their star sweeper, Iranian Said Baghvardani, and two other regulars because of injuries, SMU came close to blowing Saturday's game. Under a sky that threatened icy rain and in temperatures that hovered in the low 40s, the Mustangs seemed aimless as play began. They tripped on the grass and slipped on the hardpan. They did manage to produce two quick goals, both by their scoring ace, Forward Jeff Culver. But awed by that achievement, or exhausted by it, they wallowed around before the tiny but vocal hometown crowd of 100 or so souls who hadn't gone off to Houston for the football game. Late in the first half, two Longhorns went up with Phillips for a crossing shot, collided heavily with him, knocked the ball loose from his arms and watched it roll across the line.
The SMU defense was in disarray as the second half began, and a blistering 30-yard shot by Dallas-born Longhorn Defender Jim Poliner arced high and fast through the arms of a screened Phillips.
Tied with Texas. The disgust was plain on Phillips' face. They won't give you towels; SMU's soccer budget is so pinched that players sleep four to a double room on the road; a lot of students don't even know SMU has a soccer team; you're third in the nation and nobody cares. It was all too much.
But then, SMU began to gather steam. Phillips made a dazzling save, flipping his body quickly sideways to stop a shot from 15 feet. With 10 minutes left in the game Culver neatly faked the Texas keeper to register a hat trick.
As time ran out and Texas pressed desperately to tie, Phillips again gathered in a cross. Coming down, he was shoved hard by a Longhorn player. Phillips elbowed him out of the way. The Texas player fell down, and SMU's Tony Mungioli may or may not have kicked him on purpose. It depended on your point of view.
Both coaches came onto the field to conduct loud negotiations with the referee. A frustrated Longhorn player shoved Benedek. Several Texas fans joined the caucus, as did SMU's assistant, Ashmore.
But Benedek has become expert at talking to opposition fans, and the scene finally drained of tension. The game ended with frayed tempers but with SMU clinging to victory.
"The pressure's off for a little while," sighed Benedek, watching his players use their warmup suits to dry off in the locker room.
Next year, with only Mungioli graduating, Phillips and the Frisbee gang will undoubtedly be there, keeping the ball rolling, though it may take some funny bounces now and then.