The men's soccer team at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is coming off its best season since a return to Division I in 2008.

The Cougars (10-5-7) won their second Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, knocking off No. 13 Michigan State and No. 11 Butler on the road in penalty kicks before falling 2-1 in the third round at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons went on to finish as College Cup runner-up to Stanford.

After starting the season 1-4-2, SIUE enjoyed a 14-game unbeaten streak that was halted by No. 2 Wake Forest.

"We had an outstanding season and the goal is to try and build on that," third-year head coach Mario Sanchez said. "But rather than worrying about what's going to happen in October and November, our focus has to be on what happens in practice today, then tomorrow. Our goal, as always, is to make sure from day to day that we're constantly working to become a better team. It's a formula that's worked for us in the past, and it's one we'd like to carry forward into this season."

The Cougars opened their exhibition season last weekend at No. 14 Creighton, losing 2-1 on a goal with less than 10 seconds to play.

"Overall, I liked what I saw," said Sanchez, whose team hosts Northwestern in preseason action Saturday at 7 p.m. and opens the regular season Aug. 25 at home against No. 22 Michigan State. "We played a strong game on the road against a team that's regularly ranked in the top 25 and even though we lost the way we did, we're able to turn it into a great lesson, especially for the younger guys, that you have to stay focused for the full 90 minutes, that the game's never over until the final whistle."

The Cougars, who also have No. 8 Syracuse, No. 16 Akron and No. 25 Butler on this year's schedule, made a major move in the offseason with a move to the Mid-American Conference.

The MAC has four full members -- Akron, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan -- as well as affiliate members West Virginia and SIUE. In a preseson poll released early this week, the Cougars tied for second with West Virginia behind defending champion Akron.

"It's bittersweet. The Missouri Valley Conference was good for us, but this is a positive step," Sanchez said. "Playing in the MAC will improve our RPI, which should give us a better opportunity to challenge for an at-large bid into the NCAAs. It's a challenge, moving from one conference to another, but it's one that I know our players are excited about."

Senior goalkeeper Kyle Dal Santo, who played a key role in the Cougars' strong finish a year ago, sees the strengthened schedule and move to the MAC as both a challenge and an opportunity.

"Here in St. Louis, people know our program's great history, but that's not the case throughout the country," he said. "Our success last year helped open some eyes and our goal now is to try and build on that. The experience we gained has made us a stronger team, but we have to approach this season the same way we did last year. We have to keep working hard and we have to continue to prove ourselves."

The Cougars suffered a major loss in graduating on-field leader Austin Ledbetter, the MVC defender and player of the year. He was drafted by Major League Soccer's Dallas FC and is playing in the United Soccer League with St. Louis FC.

"You don't replace a player or a leader like Austin," Sanchez said. "But you have to move on and we're confident that we have other guys who'll step up."

Dal Santo enters his third season as a starter with 20 career shutouts and will anchor a Cougar defense expected to feature transfers Johan DePicker, a junior from Old Dominion, and Sander Heiren, a sophomore from Maryville. Junior Carl Hinkson is another defender to watch.

Junior Keegan McHugh is expected to set the tone in the midfield along with fellow sophomore Jorge Gonzalez, a transfer from Mercyhurst (Pa.). Others expected to play key roles in the SIUE attack are senior forward Devyn Jambga, who led the team in scoring year ago with six goals and three assists, senior Mohamed Awad and Eric Tejada, a sophomore from Collinsville.

Sanchez said this is the best freshman group he's recruited to SIUE and was impressed with the play of midfielder/defender Colin Hilpert (Rockwood Summit) at Creighton.

"We need our guys to realize that every season's a building process, that it's not always just about winning and losing," Sanchez said. "You always play to win and our guys expect to be successful. But the goal is to improve every time you take the field, in practices or in games. If we can do that, I'm confident we can have another successful season

So is Dal Santo, a product of the Chicago Fire Academy system who is hoping to play professionally after wrapping up his SIUE career.

"Last season was pretty special, but I don't feel like anybody celebrated it too long or too much. With a new season comes new challenges, like facing Michigan State and Syracuse to open the season. We look forward to being tested."

This article is written by Joe Lyons from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.