With the defense of its Big West title already off to a roaring start, the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team hopes a televised home match can lead to victory in one of the biggest games of the year.

Fox Soccer Channel returns to Harder Stadium tonight when the Gauchos (4-2-2 overall, 1-0-0 in the Big West) and UC Irvine kick off at 8 p.m. A year ago, Santa Barbara fell to UCLA on FSC in a preview of the national championship match.

This time the Gauchos welcome perhaps the most daunting challenger to their Big West throne. One year after staying in the conference race until the season’s final week, the Anteaters (5-1-2) boast a sound defense that has notched four shutouts and allowed two goals in one game only twice this season. Last season each team won 2-0 at home, and tonight’s match will determine who has the early edge in league play.

“Not only is it huge because its on TV, but the most important thing is to get three points, move to 2-0, and move to the head of the pack in league,” Assistant Coach Neil Jones said. “Home games are huge in league and we know that league is our road to the playoffs. As good as it is to get wins against Southern Methodist University, winning the Big West title is our first and primary goal.”

Irvine stormed out of the gate to start the year, winning its first five contests, but has posted a 0-1-2 mark in its last three games and has gone to overtime in four straight matches. UCSB has taken the alternate route, riding a three-game unbeaten streak into tonight’s match. After scoring just seven goals through their first five games, the Gauchos have erupted with 10 over the past three contests.

Much of the increased offensive output can be attributed to the chemistry between sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien and his new teammates around him. The transfer from the University of San Diego had a big void to fill with the departure of midfielder Tyler Rosenlund, but has already found the net twice and is tied for the team lead with two assists. Most importantly, the Tacoma, Wash. native has been having a larger impact as each game goes by.

“Ciaran and Tyler are totally different types of players and people are still adjusting to his play,” Jones said. “It’s up to him and the guys around him to start building that chemistry, and hopefully by game 15 or 16, when we are getting ready for the playoffs, we’re playing our best soccer.”

Aiding the Santa Barbara offense has been junior midfielder Chris Pontius, who continues to fit himself in wherever he is needed. The versatile Yorba Linda native entered the 2007 campaign with four goals in 43 matches for the Gauchos, but has catapulted himself to third in the Big West with four goals already this season. Pontius notched the game winner in UCSB’s last match against UC Davis and leads the squad with two game winners.

“He’s a fighter and brings the type of attitude that this team has had since [Head Coach] Tim [Vom Steeg] has been in charge,” Jones said. “We weren’t expecting him to be our lead goal scorer after eight games, but it’s always nice to have him step up when the forwards aren’t scoring. We’ve given in and progressively put him closer and closer to the goal.”

If the Gauchos continue their recent scoring trend and find a way to get through Irvine’s solid back line, they will get an early leg up on Big West competition in their attempt to bring a second-straight conference crown to Santa Barbara.