Rodney Michael pushes the ball past defenders. Christina DeMarzo/Daily Nexus

The UCSB men’s soccer team’s early season struggles have put them in a precarious situation. With only two games to go, the Gauchos, touted as potential conference contenders this season, currently find themselves tied for sixth place in the conference with a 8-6-1 record. With only six teams making the Big West tournament, every point matters for Santa Barbara. Things certainly don’t get any easier on Saturday, when CSUN comes to town.

Ranked 44th in the nation in RPI, the Matadors are currently second in the conference with seven points. Northridge has multiple key wins on its resume, including an away win over then No. 17 UCLA, a 3-0 thumping of No. 15 UC Davis and a 3-1 victory over No. 17 Cornell. CSUN’s only conference loss so far came against Sacramento State, a shocking 2-1 defeat in Sacramento that once again underscores how wide open the conference is this year.

Northridge comes in to the match with momentum on its side, having knocked off Cal Poly in its last conference matche. Pretty much all of the Matadors’ offense runs through forward Daniel Trejo, who has notched an incredible nine goals already this season, including the winner against Cal Poly. On the season, Trejo already has three game-winning goals to his name.

Working on the Gauchos’ side has been their ability to shut down opposing teams’ star players. Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg has touted time and time again the contributions from center backs Hunter Ashworth and Faouzi Taieb when marking the opposing team’s best player.

Against UCLA, the two completely frustrated star freshman Matt Hundley and have yet to allow an opposing striker to score more than one goal against them this season.

Outside of Trejo, Northridge has a fairly balanced attack, with eight other players on the score sheet this season.

Keeper Henrik Regitnig has run a solid backline as well, picking up 49 saves and four clean sheets already this year.

Similarly to the Gauchos, CSUN has fared much better at home than on the road this season. With a 5-1 home record and 3-4-1 away record, the Matadors may have a tough time adjusting to the hostile environment that Harder Stadium is notorious for.

While their road struggles have been well-documented, Santa Barbara has been dominant at home, still unbeaten after seven home games. The Gauchos have also been a much stronger offensive team at home, having scored 13 of their 17 goals.

As has been the trend most of the season, the team will rely on star forward Rodney Michael to manufacture the team’s offense.

Although he hasn’t scored in the last five matches, Michael picked up both assists in the crucial draw against Irvine and has netted six goals this season. Playing from the right wing, Michael will be the focal point of the attack.

Despite their struggle for consistency up front, the Gauchos have been bolstered as of late by their reshuffled midfield, led by sophomores Carson Vom Steeg and Sahid Conteh.

Vom Steeg, a transfer from Stanford, has dealt with leg injuries throughout the entire season, but he had perhaps his finest performance last Saturday when he scored the tying goal against Irvine.

After being dropped from the starting lineup, Conteh has inserted himself into the fold once again as a starter after a series of stellar performances. Conteh’s elite pace allows him to patrol the midfield defensively as well as make runs up the field and serve as an outlet to the other attackers.

Anything less than a victory on Saturday would leave Santa Barbara in a perilous position, potentially putting it on the outside looking in for a key to the Big West Tournament.

With only a rivalry game against Cal Poly left on the schedule, the Gauchos desperately need a result against Daniel Trejo and the Matadors.

The game will kick off on Saturday at Harder Stadium at 7 p.m.

A version of this story appeared on page 8 of the Oct. 18 print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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