After reaching the halfway point in conference play, the #15 UCSB men’s soccer team hosts longtime rival Cal State Northridge Saturday at 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium. The contest pits the only two teams to win the Big West Championship since the league reinstated men’s soccer in 2001.

The Gauchos (7-3-3 overall, 4-1-1 in the Big West) and Matadors (5-3-5, 1-1-3 Big West) have had some epic battles through the years, including meeting in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round in 2005 in Northridge, a contest CSUN won 3-2. Although it is still early in the season, Northridge has yet to prove it is on the same level as UCSB and first-place Cal Poly, coming into the match sitting in fourth place in the conference standings.

“I still feel like the rivalry is still there because, if you look at the schedule, they have not played Cal Poly yet,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “They still have four games against the top two teams in the conference, so three or four wins could put them right out in front. Talentwise, I still feel like Northridge, player-for-player, is one of the top two or three teams in the conference.”

Santa Barbara’s six-match unbeaten streak ended against the Mustangs (9-1-2, 4-0-2 Big West) last week, but the Gauchos bounced back for a 2-1 road win against UC Riverside last Saturday. Last season the Matadors handed UCSB a 5-0 loss in Northridge – the program’s worst lost with Vom Steeg at the helm – before the Gauchos responded with a 1-0 win at home.

Leading the Santa Barbara attack recently has been senior striker Tino Nunez, who tallied assists on both UCSB goals in the win against the Highlanders (4-4-5, 1-2-3 Big West). After failing to have a consistent impact on the field in his first four years with the program, Nunez ranks second on the team with four assists and is fourth with 10 points.

“We’re very pleased with the way he’s playing,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s settled into more of a setup person at this point and I think what we’ve needed all year is for some of the players around him to start finishing. He’s doing what we need him to do and that is get us points.”

The Matadors come into the contest after picking up their first league win, a 1-0 home victory over Cal State Fullerton (5-8-2, 1-5-2 Big West) Wednesday. UCSB will have to keep an eye on sophomore forward Sunghyun Kim, who has tallied a team-high nine points and found the back of the net four times. Before this week’s win, CSUN tied #27 Maryland 1-1 on the road. The Matadors can also boast a 3-0 victory over national runner-up UCLA earlier this in the year.

The good news for the Gauchos is that for the first time in its last three games senior defender Andy Iro and freshman defender Michael Boxall will suit up in the backline simultaneously. Iro received a red card two matches ago, missing the Cal Poly match, and Boxall missed the contest against Riverside after being sent off against the Mustangs.

“Our biggest issue is that when we started league we had our starting lineup, but then after the disaster game against Davis we lose Andy [Iro] and have to start making adjustments again,” Vom Steeg said. “For us, its the home games we need to win and then go on the road and win a game or two.”