With a chance to strengthen its hold on the top spot in the Big West, the #12 UCSB men’s soccer team invades Irvine tonight at 7 hoping to avenge a 2-0 loss at Anteater Stadium last season.

The last time these two squads met, the Gauchos (8-3-3 overall, 5-1-1 in the Big West) sent a resounding message to the rest of the conference, demolishing the Anteaters (6-4-4, 1-3-2 Big West) 4-0 in a game televised on the Fox Soccer Channel. Junior forward Chris Pontius tallied a hat trick in the match, the second conference contest of the year for UCSB.

“One of our themes this year has been that we lost at Davis last year, lost at Riverside last year, and we’ve gotten both those games back,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We lost at Irvine last year, and if we’d won that game, we would have won the league championship. Instead we had to wait for Irvine to lose to [Cal State] Northridge.”

With Saturday’s date with second place Cal Poly on the horizon, junior midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan and senior midfielder Brennan Tennelle will need to be careful not to earn their fifth yellow cards as it would force them to miss the upcoming match due to yellow card accumulation. The last time the Gauchos faced the Mustangs (9-1-3, 4-0-3 Big West) they suited up without senior defender Andy Iro, and Cal Poly exploited the missing All-American’s spot on the field.

Santa Barbara will look be sporting a different look on the pitch this time around. Freshman defender Michael Boxall will be out of the lineup for at least three weeks, and is scheduled for a MRI on his sprained knee today. The Gaucho offense will have to do without one of the premier playmakers in the land, as junior midfielder Eric Avila received a red card in the 73rd minute of Saturday’s match against the Matadors.

“I just feel like our team is playing well, and fortunately for us there is a difference between losing [Avila] and a player like Andy [Iro],” Vom Steeg said. “With [Avila], it’s a hit, but we have several other really good attacking players. [Senior forward Andrew] Proctor and [sophomore midfielder David] Walker have been playing well for us.”

Irvine comes into the contest with just one win in its last nine matches, after starting out the season with five straight victories. In their last home game, the Anteaters battled the Mustangs to a 1-1 tie and are an unbeaten 5-0-2 at Anteater Stadium this year. Junior Midfielder Matt Murphy is the go-to man on offense for Irvine, and he leads the squad with a team-high six goals and 14 points.

Conference road wins are always hard to come by, and UCSB has posted a 2-2-1 mark away from Harder Stadium. With the second-place Mustangs facing a difficult Matador team at home tonight, the Gauchos hope to gain some breathing room heading into Saturday’s showdown.

“I have this expectation that Northridge will be playing for their playoff lives Wednesday afternoon against Cal Poly,” Vom Steeg said. “So our hope is that Northridge does their thing and we do our thing and then we can win on Saturday.”