It took a few tries, but the defending national champion UCSB men’s soccer team is beginning to show glimpses of its former self.

Third-ranked Southern Methodist University (2-1-1) provided the biggest early season test for the #9 Gauchos (2-1-1) last weekend, looking for revenge after Santa Barbara eliminated the top-seeded Mustangs in the second round of the 2006 NCAA playoffs. Junior All-American midfielder Eric Avila netted the game-winner in the first overtime to give UCSB a 2-1 victory in the Nike/Crescent Financial Solutions Invitational at the University of New Mexico Soccer Complex.

New Mexico (3-3), which is ranked #28, avoided being Santa Barbara’s second victim of the weekend, banging in the game-winning goal in the 82nd minute. Junior midfielder Chris Pontius netted his team-leading second goal for the Gauchos, who have now allowed a goal in the final 10 minutes in four contests. Avila and sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien were named to the All-Tournament Team for their efforts over the weekend.

UCSB picked up its first win and first shutout of the year with a 2-0 blanking of University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (0-5), the same team Santa Barbara defeated on its run to the College Cup in 2004. The defense turned in a dominating performance, limiting the Panthers to two shots on frame despite the absence of senior co-captain Greg Curry.

Instrumental to Santa Barbara’s offensive success has been O’Brien, who leads the team with five points and is one of two Gauchos to find the back of the net twice this season. Avila has again shown his ability to shine in big games and leads the squad with two assists.

“[O’Brien] and [Avila] are really going to pace our offense and create a lot of opportunities for us,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “They both do so many things well, so we should have our share of chances. We need our guys up top.”

Santa Barbara opened the 2007 campaign by blowing a 2-0 lead – a rare occurrence for the Gaucho defense – at Stanford (1-1-2) en route to a 2-2 tie. Junior forward and 2006 playoff hero Nick Perera gave UCSB its first goal of the year and O’Brien found the net in his Gaucho debut, while freshman goalkeeper Bryant Rueckner stopped a penalty kick early in his first start.

UCSB’s home opener against Gonzaga (2-1) did not go much better, as the Bulldogs scored late and held on for a 1-0 win. The Gauchos dominated for the majority of the match, outshooting the Bulldogs 19-8, but only put five shots on goal and could not capitalize on their opportunities. Gonzaga has since risen from unranked to #21.

Former Assistant Coach Leo Chappel will return to Harder Stadium for the first time as a visitor when his Columbia squad takes the pitch against UCSB on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Gauchos will then head to the Home Depot Center in Carson to face Harvard to complete the nonconference schedule.

“We are going to have to get used to being pushed for 90 minutes every time out,” Vom Steeg said. “We will be tested all season long, but we have the depth to handle things.”