The stage is set for the showdown.

he #12 UCSB men’s soccer team took care of business, defeating conference rival UC Irvine 3-1 to remain atop the Big West standings. Santa Barbara welcomes second place Cal Poly to Harder Stadium in the biggest game of the year this Saturday.

The Gauchos (9-3-3 overall, 6-1-1 in the Big West) rode second-half goals by sophomore midfielder Ciaran O’Brien and senior midfielder Brennan Tennelle – who netted his first two goals of the season – to turn a 1-1 halftime score into the squad’s sixth conference victory. UCSB made up for last season’s 2-0 defeat at Anteater Stadium, the final loss the 2006 Gauchos endured en route to the national championship. Santa Barbara has avenged three of last season’s four conference losses, winning at UC Riverside, UC Davis, and now Irvine.

“We used [last year’s loss] as motivation because we didn’t play well last year [in Irvine],” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We knew by the time we got down there that Cal Poly’s game ended in a tie and it gave us a chance to go up [in the standings]. Motivating our guys was the opportunity to put ourselves in a position to more or less clinch the conference on Saturday.”
The Anteaters (6-5-4, 1-4-2 Big West) got on the board first when junior midfielder Matt Murphy, a Third Team Pre-Season All-American, blasted home a free kick from 30 yards out in the 13th minute. The Gauchos responded before the break when Tennelle received a pass from sophomore midfielder Jon Curry in the box, beating Irvine freshman goalkeeper Pat Barton for the equalizer.

It didn’t take long after the intermission for UCSB to gain its first lead of the game. Curry picked up ball on left side and drove it 40 yards across the field over the head of both Anteater center backs to O’Brien on the right wing. O’Brien was able to maneuver in between two defenders and find the back of the net in the 48th minute. Tennelle finished the Gaucho attack for the second time in the 53rd minute, proving the Santa Barbara offense did not miss a beat with All-American junior midfield Eric Avila missing the match with a red card.

“Its tough with Avila gone because he’s the guy that makes everything slow, but it shows that we can cope without him,” O’Brien said. “We can still get things done when we are losing a top player.”

O’Brien’s goal was his third in the past two games, but the difference was this time he was playing without his midfield partner in Avila. The transfer student from San Diego is second among the Gauchos with six goals and took over the team lead with 18 points after assisting on Tenelle’s second goal.

UCSB is now on its second three-game conference-winning streak of the season as they await the arrival of the Mustangs (9-1-3 overall, 4-0-3 Big West), who battled Northridge (6-4-6 overall, 1-2-4 Big West) to a scoreless tie last night.

“Conference games alone are always big, but this is even bigger,” O’Brien said. “We had to take care of business down here on the road to even have a chance at home, so it’s a big win and now we’re looking toward Saturday.”