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Cale Wassermann’s coaching career at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville begins with a match Friday afternoon at Michigan State.

That’s where Wassermann spent the last four years as recruiting coordinator and assistant coach under St. Louisan Damon Rensing. A St. Louis University High product, Rensing starred with the Spartans and spent 10 seasons there as an assistant coach under another St. Louisan, Joe Baum.

The Spartans, who have qualified for the NCAAs in eight of Rensing’s nine seasons as coach, reached the College Cup for the first time a year ago, losing in the semifinals to eventual national runner-up Akron.

“The schedule was set a few years back, but it’s definitely an interesting way to start my career here,” Wassermann said. “It’ll be a challenge, no question, but we’re looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity to test ourselves.”

The Cougars, who finished 9-5-4 overall and 1-3-1 in the Mid-American Conference a year ago, face another interesting early-season challenge on Sept. 13 when they host St. Louis U. in the first Bronze Boot contest in Edwardsville since 1994.

In the 1970s, when both programs were national powers, the games were played at Busch Stadium, with the 1980 contest drawing an NCAA record crowd of 22,512.

The series was resurrected last year at SLU in a game that ended 1-1.

“That’ll be a big game for us eventually,” Wassermann said. “But right now, we’re pretty focused on the trip to Michigan.”

Prior to joining the staff at Michigan State, Wassermann posted a record of 64-23-15 and made NCAA Division II Tournament appearances in 2011, 2012 and 2014 at his alma mater, Saginaw Valley State University. In 2012, he led the Cardinals to the DII championship game.

Wassermann takes over at SIUE for Mario Sanchez, who unexpectedly stepped down in November to become director of youth development and community relations for Louisville City FC of the United Soccer League. In four seasons as head coach of the Cougars, Sanchez went 38-24-14.

In 2016, red-hot SIUE earned an NCAA bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and advanced to the College Cup’s Sweet 16, getting past No. 13 Michigan State and No. 11 Butler before losing 2-1 in the third round of the tournament to that year’s NCAA champion, Wake Forest.

“Mario left the program in good shape,” Wassermann said. “We’ve added 10 new guys to the mix, but this is a roster that has some very good pieces to build around.

“There won’t be any drastic changes. I want us to play consistent and disciplined soccer. We want to limit mistakes and possess the ball as much as possible.”

The Cougars, who tied visiting Tulsa and won 3-2 at Kentucky in the preseason, were picked to finish fourth behind 2018 NCAA runner-up Akron, Western Michigan and West Virginia in the MAC this season.

SIUE figures to be led again by a pair of returning All-MAC players in seniors Lachlan McLean and Jorge Gonzalez. McLean, of Australia, led the MAC in regular-season scoring with 23 points (nine goals, five assists) a year ago. He enters this season with 16 goals and seven assists.

“We’re expecting big things from Lachlan,” Wassermann said. “And from Jorge, too. These are guys who’ve shown they can score at this level, and that’s something we’re excited about.”

Gonzalez, from Spain, led the Cougars with five goals and 12 points in 2017; last year, he started all 18 games and earned all-league honors as an attacking midfielder after contributing eight goals and an assist.

Another player to watch is senior Mathias Krigbaum of Denmark.

In the midfield, the Cougars expect to be led by senior Jorgen Pettersen, of Norway, who transferred after two seasons at Division II Maryville University; sophomore Steven Bibas (Vianney); junior Jaime Roiz and sophomore Jake Meier, a transfer from Indiana University who could see action in the backfield.

Another attacking player to watch is freshman Jacob Bilyeu (Oakville); he’s the brother of former Cougars standout Justin Bilyeu.

In goal, the Cougars return junior Noah Heim, a transfer from Marquette University who started all 18 games a year ago. But he’s being pushed in the preseason by sophomore Lluis Martorell from Spain.

In the backfield, players in the mix include Meier, sophomore Jack Edwards (CBC), who started 17 of 18 games a year ago, and Aaron Crabtree, a freshman from England. Another defender to watch is Carl Hinkson, from Barbados. He saw action in 2015, 2016 and 2017 but sat out last season.

“We have a real interesting mix, guys from all over the world,” Wassermann said. “But most of them were with us when I got here early in the year and it’s been coming together pretty well since then. By adding depth, we also added competition, which is always good. We play a tough schedule, but we expect to play good, competitive soccer.

“We’re excited to get the season started.”

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Joe Lyons is a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.