Despite clinching No. 1 seeds and first-round byes in the Big West Tournament the past two seasons, the UCSB men’s soccer team was knocked out in its postseason opener at home on both occasions. For a team hungry to win its first Big West Championship in five years, the wait is finally over.

Santa Barbara opens up Big West play with road games today and Saturday against UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge, respectively. The Gauchos enter tonight’s match with a 5-3-1 record, which includes statement wins over No. 3 Stanford and on the road at UCLA.

The Anteaters were a national powerhouse last season, but have not found nearly the same success this time around, starting the year at 2-5-2. The Matadors started slowly in 2015, but won their last three games on the road to improve to 4-3-1 heading into conference play.

As a team, UCSB has been the best on offense this season, currently leading the Big West with 18 goals through nine games. Junior Nick DePuy has been a model of consistency since moving from the midfield to forward midway through last season, scoring 16 goals in his 22 games up front. He currently leads the Big West with seven goals and was named this week’s Big West Offensive Player of the Week.

Freshman forward Geoffrey Acheampong came into the year as a player to watch coming out of Cate School and he has not disappointed. The lefty notched his fourth assist of the year in the Gauchos’ 4-0 win over San Diego this past Sunday, making him the conference’s sole leader in assists.

Also providing an offensive punch has been sophomore Ahinga Selemani, who transferred from Michigan after his freshman year. The 5-8 forward has already matched his totals from last year with three goals and is currently tied with DePuy and one other player for first in the conference with 28 shots.

Injuries have begun to wear UCSB down a bit, with several starters being kept out of the lineup in recent games. Juniors Ismaila Jome and Drew Murphy were unavailable to close out the Gauchos’ last four games, while sophomore center back Jeff Quezada suffered an injury in practice that kept him out for last weekend’s games.

In Quezada’s absence, the defense has looked shaky at times, but a pair of freshmen in defender Sam Strong and goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg have been solid all year. The Gauchos are currently ranked fifth in the conference having allowed 11 goals to opposing teams.

UCI has struggled to start the year, but it hosts UCSB tonight seemingly having solved its offensive problems which caused it to stumble out of the gates. Through their first seven games, the Anteaters were shutout four times, putting away just three goals total.

In the past week, however, they have found a rhythm, putting away four scores in a win over LMU on Thursday, followed up by a three goal effort in a 4-3 overtime loss to UCLA.

The second half could be worrisome for the Gauchos, who have conceded eight of their 11 goals allowed after halftime. This might favor the Anteaters, who have put away all but one of their 10 goals in the second stanza.

Freshman forward Ivan Canales leads the offense in goals and assists with three each.

The Matadors host Cal Poly tonight and UCSB on Saturday having won three consecutive games on the road. They have dominated the conference awards in recent weeks, with the past two Defensive Player of the Week winners and the Offensive Player of the Week from two weekends ago.

Senior goalkeeper Adam Hobbs took home the most recent defensive honors, stopping a penalty and maintaining a 1-0 shutout against San Diego last Friday. Senior defender and captain Trevor Morley earned the award the week prior, holding Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara to just one goal in 180 minutes while adding two goals of his own on penalties.

On the offensive side, redshirt senior Carlos Gonzalez leads the team with four goals, three of which he scored in 29 minutes off the bench at Saint Mary’s to earn his first ever Offensive Player of the Week award.

The Gauchos play at UC Irvine tonight at 7 p.m. and will head to Northridge to take on the Matadors Saturday at 5 p.m.