Coming off of a dominant performance against Cal State Fullerton, Gaucho soccer welcomes conference rival Cal Poly to town tonight to kick off what Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg calls “the biggest week of the season.”

[media-credit id=16616 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]Though the Gauchos had a lackluster start to the season, UCSB (5-3-2 overall, 2-1-0 Big West) has picked up its play in recent weeks, going 5-1 in its last six games and 2-1 in conference play. After predicting and exacting revenge on the Titans last week, rival Cal Poly (4-4-2 overall, 1-1-1 Big West) will bring in a new challenge to Vom Steeg’s squad.

“Certainly in the Big West conference there was always this thing about us against Cal Poly, no matter what sport,” Vom Steeg said. “But soccer, for the first five years, was always just us and Northridge. Then there’s a coaching change and much more success and it’s a rivalry now because we know that when we show up, there’s going to be ten thousand people there.”

UCSB soccer has led the nation in average attendance every year since 2007, and matches against Cal Poly are regularly some of the most crowded. In 2009, the match against the Mustangs at Harder brought in nearly 6,000 people — despite the game being played on a Wednesday night.

Fans tonight, though, will see a depleted Gaucho squad that is missing senior goalkeeper Sam Hayden as well as senior defender Michael Boxall. Hayden earned a three game suspension for a push after a red card in the team’s Fullerton loss, and Boxall received a red of his own in the Fullerton victory for allegedly stepping on an opposing player.

“It’s a little bit of an issue because Boxall is a big presence and Sam is a big presence and it’s definitely going to be more difficult,” sophomore midfielder Machael David said. “But I think that we have other players that can get the job done, it’s just not going to be the same as Sam and Boxall.”

Junior midfielder Peter McGlynn was equally confident about his team’s ability to play without the defensive leadership of two of the team’s best players.

“[We lose] communication and leadership,” McGlynn said. “But I think we have enough leadership to deal without two key players. They were obviously a big loss, but everyone’s pretty confident that we’re going to get the right results, and we’re all looking forward to the rivalry.”

The team is 2-0 so far without Hayden, using freshman keeper Eric Reyes in goal instead. Hayden will be eligible to return Friday night when UCSB plays a nationally televised game against Duke. The Gauchos’ senior goalkeeper has let in an average of just .90 goals per game, good for fourth in the Big West. Until he returns, the team’s focus will be on the offensive side of the ball.

“The goal for the match is that we don’t leave it up to the referee, or up to a mistake,” Vom Steeg said. “We don’t want to leave it up to anybody. We want to control the things that we can control. If we can score three goals we’re not going to be sitting around wondering why we lost. It’s about us and our attack and our ability to put the ball away and score goals.”

The team is also looking forward to gaining momentum from their stellar play as of late. The Gauchos are undefeated in their last 10 matches at home against Cal Poly, going 9-0-1, while the Mustangs have fought their way to a .500 record this season with an identity as a potent offensive force. The team registers an average of 16.33 shots per match, which is second in the conference only to Santa Barbara.

“We just have to play our game and not play into Cal Poly’s system,” David said. “We have to bury some goals and finish our chances. I think what makes you a great team his how you play coming off the bad games. Come tomorrow we’re going to be a different team and give the school what they were expecting going into the College Cup.”

“We’re in a good place right now,” Vom Steeg said. “The big issue for us is we go into this game and it’s the biggest week of the season. We have Poly and then Duke and then Riverside. Two are conference and one is televised and at the end of this week we’ll know a lot more about what the season’s going to look like.”

Kickoff on tonight is set for 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium.