Winning big games seems to come natural to the UCSB men’s soccer team. Now the question is whether it can win the little ones.

With Irvine on the mind on Friday afternoon, the Gauchos put forth a lackluster performance in the San Diego heat, falling 4-2 against a fired-up San Diego State squad. Just two days later, back in the Cathedral of College Soccer that the Gauchos call home, UCSB came out swinging and shut down Big West contender UC Irvine’s potent attack in a 1-0 victory.

“I think [the difference] was just work rate,” sophomore midfielder Luis Silva said about the two games. “…At San Diego State we were just tired, and we didn’t want it as much as them. That’s something we need to work on.”

The Aztecs certainly came out the aggressors on Friday, and their intensity paid off early on. In the 22nd minute, SDSU junior forward Raymundo Reza opened the scoring, notching a through ball finish into the right corner of the net.

“We came out a little sloppy at San Diego State,” freshman forward Michael Nonni said. Nonni, who himself admitted to having a poor game, attributed the sloppiness to a team-wide lack of proper motivation in the game.

However, a lack of pre-game fire did not mean the Gauchos would fall quietly. UCSB scored moments later on Silva’s second score of the season. The sophomore took a pass from senior forward David Walker and calmly slotted the ball past the Aztec keeper.

The 1-1 stalemate did not last long, though, as SDSU came roaring back four minutes later. Reza’s flick off a free kick found the feet of midfielder Jamel Wallace, who knocked it into the netting and retook the lead at 31 minutes.

The score stood 2-1 at half, but it hardly took a minute into the second before UCSB squared it up again. Sophomore midfielder Peter McGlynn set up Nonni with a through ball, and the freshman’s speed got him past the defense and alone with the keeper. Nonni’s effort hit the post and bounced in, and it looked like Santa Barbara might come away with the win. However, that would be the last of UCSB’s scoring.

The Aztecs took the lead for good in the 61st minute, as Reza’s game-winning goal came on another set piece. The junior’s long shot for a goal was complimented 10 minutes later when midfielder Evan Toft added SDSU’s fourth and final goal.

The Gauchos, having lost 4-2 on the road, had to regroup quickly for UC Irvine. They did just that. In front of 4,511 screaming fans at Harder Stadium, the Gauchos blanked the ‘Eaters and came away with a hard-fought victory.

The sole score came in the 21st minute, when Nonni made a perfectly timed run to the right side and snagged an excellent cross-field pass. Nonni beat his defender around the edge and ran in unmarked into the box. However, the defenseman followed the freshman and made an ill-advised sliding attempt, sending Nonni to the turf and earning the Gauchos a penalty kick.

On the kick, sophomore transfer Waid Ibrahim played the ball right down the middle, and a diving Victor Chinchilla was helpless to stop its progress. With the lead, the Gauchos went into lockdown mode on defense to stop the UC Irvine attack.

The Anteaters had several good opportunities throughout the match, but were unable to capitalize on any of them. Junior goalkeeper Sam Hayden came up with several big saves along the way, and the Gauchos were able to preserve the shutout.

“We just pressured and pressured.” Silva said. “We were mostly consistent and hardworking as a [defensive] group.”

The win, which starts conference play off on the right foot, should act as a statement to the rest of the Big West.

“We wanted to come out and prove to these guys … that we’re the best team in the conference, and it showed tonight,” Nonni said. “[The win is] huge for us. Conference play is everything.”

And to do it in front of the best crowd in college soccer? Consider that an added bonus.

“The crowd was awesome… I love it,” Silva said. “It’s one of the reasons I came here, and hopefully we take this crowd far.”

If the Gauchos keep up their level of play in front of their home faithful, they might go far. But to do so, they will need to start playing better consistently, even in the less marquee matchups.