The great spoiler, Cal State Northridge, returns to Santa Barbara tonight to take on the first place Gauchos amid their longest winning streak of the season.

Among the Matadors (5-5-5 overall, 3-1-3 Big West) exploits are the Big West Championship last season, the all-time edge in the heated 28-game series between these schools and a 5-0 beat down of UCSB (10-6-0 overall, 4-2-0 Big West) last month. And that’s not to mention knocking the Gauchos out of the playoffs last season.

“What makes [Northridge] so dangerous is that they’re playing us,” junior defender Andy Iro said. “They always step their game up against us and when they play lesser-known teams they’re not quite as motivated.”

Putting things into perspective, the Gauchos collected a season-high three red cards in last month’s meeting between the two teams, a contest Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg called one of the worst-officiated games he had ever seen. Also, the early struggles in the season were defined in large part by a frantic struggle to build some kind rhythm on the field, which was not helped by injuries to veterans like junior midfielder Tyler Rosenlund, the six-player bout for a starting slot up top and the constant parade of ejections that forced Vom Steeg to get creative with lineups.

Today, the Gauchos are a different team. They have settled quite a bit and while they still surrender to their emotions long enough to lose a player to ejection – senior midfielder Eric Frimpong will sit this contest out on suspension – they are not the turbulent mavericks they once were.

UCSB has begun to incorporate veterans and newcomers in a more productive way like they have with freshman forward Bongomin Otii and freshman midfielder David Walker. The Gauchos have learned to overcome hardships like the suspension of defensive mainstay Andy Iro while avenging a nonconference loss to Davis. And for the first time all season, they’ve strung together a trio of wins to put them on top of the Big West standings.

“We’re starting to get the ball out wide more; we’re getting [David] Walker the ball,” Iro said. “Eighteen to 18, we’re finding the open man, and that’s what we need to keep doing.”

But there is another side to this coin. Northridge is a loose cannon. In other words, it is a complete mystery which team will show up tonight.

The Gauchos could face the same Northridge that trounced #5 UCLA and later #6 Santa Clara by three goals. Or they may play the Matadors that tied Riverside twice, a team that has only one win in Big West conference play.

“[The Matadors are] all very good players on the ball and they all want the ball.” Iro said. “There are no players on the field they’re hiding.

Kickoff tonight is slated for 7 in Harder Stadium.