Patiently, the UCSB men’s soccer team has climbed national polls and rankings, earning more respect with each victory and more confidence with each goal.

While the outcome of Sunday’s game against top-ranked Indiana may not have been to their liking, the 17th ranked Gauchos proved to last year’s NCAA runner-up and the rest of the nation that they belong.

“We are as good as anyone in the nation. What we all learned from Indiana was that, when presented with a chance to score, you need to take them. Indiana and us had about the same number of chances today, they just put three in the net and we only scored one,” junior midfielder Neil Jones said.

The next test for the Gauchos will be tonight versus UC Irvine at Anteater Stadium, a crucial Big West battle for both teams. The Anteaters sport a record of 6-5-2 overall and a symmetrical1-1-1 Big West profile. UCI’s strict defense, which gives up roughly one goal per game, should pose a formidable deterrent to UCSB’s high-octane offense.

“UC Irvine is going to be a strong team. I think the key to winning is getting a couple of goals on them early on. Once that happens, we can keep the momentum going, and the game should be ours,” senior forward Rob Friend said. “I think they are still fragile from the loss they had against Cal Poly, and we need to attack them early on.”

Irvine will be plying its first game in over a week, due to the postponement of Saturday’s game against Riverside. UCI was unable to play because of an auto accident involving the team bus en route to the game against the Highlanders. Needless to say, Irvine will be anticipating the Gauchos. Santa Barbara has not faced the Anteaters yet this season, and is still due to play them at home in the last game of 2002 regular season on Nov. 16.

“Irvine is always a tough place to play,” UCSB Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Jumping on top of them early will be critical. If you fall behind, you’ll probably see eight or nine guys in the box.”

According to Vom Steeg, Irvine will likely keep two or three men on perpetual scoring threat Friend and do whatever is necessary to keep the Gauchos from playing their game.

Missing in action for Irvine is its leading scorer Dardo Acuna, who suffered a season-ending injury two weeks ago. Acuna’s loss will force Anteater goalkeeper Cameron Rossi to step up his game. Rossi has five shutouts on the season and is UCI’s career leader in goals-against average (0.93).

If UCSB is unable to score early, the match could come down to a defensive team playing for a tie against an offensive team playing for a win.